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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Spokane business has been hampered by sluggish USPS service. Proposed mail changes could make it worse.

Chuck Foster started selling toys and collectibles on eBay in 1995, before it was even called eBay. Over the years, what began as a hobby grew into a reliable second source of income as he shipped Legos, lunch boxes and Pez dispensers from Spokane across the country – all thanks to the U.S. Postal Service.

But the speedy delivery he had come to expect is no longer, Foster said. Amid unprecedented mail delays in December, angry customers started leaving reviews blaming him when their items were stuck in transit.

“This is entirely unacceptable,” one customer wrote after a Lego set didn’t arrive in time for Hanukkah. “It spent SIX days between Spokane and Seattle. That is insane. You could walk faster. Now stuck for days in Brooklyn? I will never do business with you again.”

Foster estimated he has lost about $500 since December from refunding customers for late mail, but he worries the bigger cost will be those negative reviews on both eBay and Amazon, where he now does most of his business, turning away business in the future.

“It’s kind of shocking how bad things are,” Foster said. “In the past, it’s been surprising how reliable the mail was. It was really rare for First-Class Mail to take more than a couple of days, three days tops, to get to the other side of the country. Now it’s taking seven days, 10 days, two weeks sometimes.”

The on-time delivery rate for USPS First-Class Mail hovered between 80% and 90% in the months leading up to the November election – well below a stated goal of 96% on-time deliveries – according to weekly reports the agency provided to Congress. But after the pre-election scrutiny faded, that rate plummeted to a low of about 62% in the week before Christmas.

While the Postal Service said Friday on-time deliveries have rebounded from their holiday low, less than 84% of First-Class Mail reached its destination on time in the week ending March 12.

Now, just as small business owners like Foster who count on the Postal Service are hoping for a return to reliable service, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is expected to unveil plans Tuesday to overhaul the agency that could further slow mail delivery.

DeJoy’s forthcoming plan, the Washington Post reported in February, would end the use of airplanes to transport First-Class Mail and eliminate the two-day delivery standard for local mail in favor of the three- to five-day standard that applies for First-Class Mail sent across the country.

Don Sneesby, western region vice president at the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, said the agency’s recent struggles demand “a rethinking of our transportation system,” which is currently intertwined with two of its private-sector competitors, UPS and FedEx.

“Christmas was just awful,” Sneesby said. “We were 230% above the volume of a year prior, due to COVID and people getting so used to shopping online.”

“UPS and FedEx were similarly overwhelmed, but they told several of their major customers that they would no longer take any additional packages, so all those got dumped on the Postal Service.”

The Postal Service relies on UPS and FedEx airplanes, as well as commercial flights, to transport mail across the country, while the private shippers in turn count on USPS mail carriers for “last-mile” deliveries, especially in rural areas.

With its competitors’ planes full and fewer commercial flights due to the pandemic, Sneesby said, the Postal Service had to resort to trucking mail, which snarled logistics. In one case, he said, truck drivers going to Phoenix had to wait five to six days to unload their cargo.

When asked what factors contributed to the delays, USPS spokesman David Rupert referred to remarks DeJoy delivered Feb. 9 to the USPS board of governors.

“Throughout the peak season, the Postal Service faced multiple challenges,” DeJoy told the board. “This included significant employee shortages as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple winter storms in the Northeast, capacity issues with airlifts and trucking, and a historic high level of mail and package volumes.”

The winter storms that swept much of the country in February further disrupted mail delivery, DeJoy said in a March 18 statement, but the agency has since recovered.

Foster said he has nothing but respect for the postal workers who have scrambled to keep the mail moving throughout the pandemic. Instead, he directs his frustration toward those he believes have turned the Postal Service into an unsustainable institution.

“I blame Congress,” he said. “I blame Louis DeJoy. I mean, these mail carriers and clerks, they’re shockingly overworked.”

Through a 2006 law that dramatically reshaped the Postal Service, Congress saddled the agency with a requirement to prefund health care benefits for its employees 75 years into the future. No other federal agency or company faces such a requirement, which has driven the USPS to rely increasingly on overtime rather than hiring more workers.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in February by Sens. Steve Daines of Montana and Brian Schatz of Hawaii would repeal that prefunding requirement.

Some congressional Democrats also want to replace DeJoy, a former logistics executive and major GOP donor they blame for restructuring at the Postal Service that caused mail delays ahead of last year’s election.

DeJoy took the helm during former President Donald Trump’s tenure, but the postmaster general is appointed by the board of governors and can’t be removed by a president. President Joe Biden recently nominated three candidates to fill vacant seats on the board, potentially paving the way to ousting the USPS chief.