The U.S. Postal Service’s worker shortage during the recent COVID-19 surge was worsened by shifts on rural routes that run too long without proper compensation, according to a rural letter carrier whose last day on the job was Friday. The fallout is partly to blame for late mail deliveries in the Spokane area.
Kelty Godby, a former rural carrier associate in Spokane, said the pandemic only worsened existing gaps in the regional postal service. A recent surge in new COVID-19 cases meant many workers were out sick, and their coworkers had to pick up longer shifts to take on untended routes, he said.
Staffing shortages started before the pandemic, Godby said, because of what he believes is an unfair pay system.
Rural routes often take longer than routes in the city..
When a new rural carrier starts the job, they get paid hourly because of the time it takes to train and learn the job. If a route takes nine hours, a carrier gets paid for those nine hours, Godby said.
Once that three-month learning period ends, Godby said carriers then get paid only for the estimated time it takes to complete the route. If the postal service evaluates a route to take eight hours but it actually takes a carrier 12 hours, Godby said carriers do not get compensated for those extra hours it takes to complete the route.
“The issue is, once we’re done with training and learning the routes, we still can’t run the routes in the estimated time because the Amazon volume is so high,” Godby said, referring to delivery of packages.
The holiday season always brings more mail than usual, Godby said, but the increasingly high package volume has continued into January and February.
Without enough healthy carriers to do their routes, Godby said carriers were expected to pick up the slack as more packages – mostly from Amazon – needed to be delivered.
Higher numbers of COVID-19 cases caused only some of the staffing shortages, he said. Many carriers resigned after they saw their monthly income drop by about $1,000 once their training period ended, even as they worked long days to deliver packages.
Don Sneesby, president of Local 316 Washington and Alaska, and Western region vice president at the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, said the postal service has experienced a 30 -40% turnover rate mostly because it cannot compete with other jobs that pay more and offer better paid leave options.
“I think the postal service is very aware of the difficulties in hiring,” Sneesby said.
Sneesby said the union does not have a say in the postal service’s contracts with Amazon.
Godby is unsure when the postal service last re-evaluated rural routes. He said he believes the allotted completion time doesn’t adequately account for present-day challenges, such as workers getting sick and drivers delivering an unprecedented number of packages.
“It was already an issue before the pandemic,” Godby said. “The routes were under-evaluated before then.”
Ernie Swanson, Northwest spokesperson for the United States Postal Service, confirmed Godby’s understanding of how pay works for rural carrier associates; after three months, they only get paid for estimated route times regardless of how long it actually takes. He said he did not know the history of the pay negotiations, but that it came from the union’s agreement with the postal service.
Swanson said he did not readily know the last time rural routes in Eastern Washington were evaluated, but it usually happens every few years.
“It may have been looked at during the pandemic, but I don’t know if that brought any change,” Swanson said.
Godby said he did not leave only because of his experience with the postal service, but because he was moving to Oklahoma soon. When he asked his employers to lower his workweek to three or four days while he prepared to move, they asked him to resign, Godby said.
“They’re claiming ridiculous staffing shortages, which is true … but they asked me to resign because I can only work three to four days a week,” Godby said.
Swanson said the postal service is actively looking to hire more workers and give them an opportunity to understand the job before they accept it.
“This is an ongoing effort and in cases where we have shortages, we have sometimes been able to borrow temporarily from other offices,” Swanson said, adding this was only a short-term solution as the pandemic continues.
Recently, on any given day about 13,000 postal workers across the country are out sick, Sneesby said. That is down from 18,000 at the beginning of the omicron variant surge, but Sneebsy said that is still a substantial number of positions to fill.
Earl Eisenrich, mail processing facility manager for United States Postal Service in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, said in a Jan. 25 interview he sympathized with postal carriers who often work from early dawn until 10 p.m., and they hoped new coronavirus cases would soon flatten and alleviate the added stress.
“We don’t love it, but there’s almost no other way to deal with the situation than to make the shifts longer for the employees that remain,” Eisenrich said in that interview.
Mead resident Barry Ryan said he and his neighbors noticed mail delays starting last summer.
Fewer drivers than usual came by to drop off mail, he said. Those who did arrived in the late afternoons or sometimes at 9 p.m. Ryan said he previously usually received his mail around 1:30 or 2 p.m.
“At least six or seven months it’s been this bad,” Ryan said. “It hasn’t gotten better, it hasn’t gotten worse.”
One driver, Ryan said, told him some carriers had to take on two routes per day to make up for coworkers unable to work.
“There have been four or five occasions where I didn’t get any mail at all, and it was the next day or the day after that they came,” Ryan said.
In the 14 years he has lived at his house, Ryan said, “it never happened before.”
One solution Godby said is for the postal service to negotiate new hourly rates with the mail carrier union, rather than relying on carriers to take more routes and longer shifts that sometimes ask them to work six days a week.
“There are other options. They’re not addressing the root cause at all,” Godby said.
Sneesby said the current union contract expires in September, and negotiations with the postal service officially opens in June.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.