Your local post office is in trouble.

Problem 1: Volume

The volume of mail (letters, magazines, catalogs, and especially packages) that the United States Postal Service delivers in some areas has doubled or even tripled since 2015.

Officially, First Class Mail and package volume have generally been declining. (Source: Postal Facts: A Decade of Facts & Figures.) This doesn’t account for the fact that in rural areas and places with a high cost of living, shoppers have turned to online retailers like Amazon to buy household goods that used to be purchased locally.

According to Postal Facts, the volume of First Class Mail (things with stamps, like letters and bills) has fallen almost 50% since 2013. Meanwhile, package volume has nearly doubled from 3.7 billion pieces to 7.2 billion pieces.

While the overall trend may represent a decrease in pieces of mail moved, it doesn’t take a genius to see that sorting, transporting, and delivering boxed goods is significantly more time and labor intensive than the same process is for letters.

Problem 2: Staffing

The second element of the United States Postal Service’s crisis is staffing. To put it bluntly, we are not allowed a large enough workforce to handle the volume of mail we receive.

I’ve spent the last few years trying to find out why that is. According to more tenured employees, we slashed staffing during and immediately after the 2008 recession. In the decade and a half since, staffing levels have remained largely unchanged. When I spoke to management about the need to add more positions to handle the amount of mail we’re seeing, I was told that “the numbers” don’t justify a larger workforce.

What numbers are those, and how do they fail to justify adequate staffing? We’re working massive amounts of overtime, often six days a week, year-round. This holiday season, regular full time employees without medical restrictions typically worked more than 70 hours per week. Support employees were scheduled to work 7 days a week. At time of writing, some of those employees have gone more than two weeks without a day off.

It turns out that there’s an odd caveat to the formula: the post office considers all mail pieces to be equal. If you’ve lost 60% of your letters but seen a 40% increase in packages, you’re seeing 20% less volume and your operation should require 20% fewer work-hours. This ignores the fundamental fact that handling, transporting, and delivering packages takes considerably more time and resources than the same process does for letters.

This leads to a critical disconnect between the reality senior management sees and the reality those of us who actually work the mail see. To senior management, volume is down and thus high overtime is simply due to employees working inefficiently.

To those of us actually handling the mail, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done, no matter how efficiently we work. Despite the fact that we’re contractually guaranteed lunches and breaks, some employees work through them in order to leave less undone at the end of our 10- and 12-hour workdays.

The Solution

There are several ways this problem could be solved. Firstly, the Post Office could increase employee levels to meet demand. By all accounts, this should have happened when we first took on the contract to fulfill Amazon’s delivery needs. The second best time to do that would be now.

Secondly, our customers could choose to shop local over shopping online. Today most local supermarkets offer contactless curbside pickup options, so you don’t even have to worry about what you might catch while doing your shopping. Not so for the line at your local post office, where you’ll almost certainly wind up waiting to pick up many of the items in your Amazon order.

Thirdly, Amazon could choose to take back delivery of their products. This is on the horizon, albeit distantly for more rural areas. In some cities Amazon has already rolled out Flex, a delivery service that relies on gig workers to sign up to deliver a specific route on a specific day.

Side note: Amazon isn’t doing this out of a desire to keep from crippling a vital service relied upon by millions. I suspect that crippling the USPS and other competitors was more of a strategic move than an accidental side effect. Instead, the implementation of Flex is probably all about the bottom dollar. Having observed how established delivery services transport Amazon’s products, Amazon is now ready to undercut them with its own, cheaper, more worker-exploitive service.

What Can We Do?

If this is something you care about, if you feel that the USPS provides a vital service, or if you just feel some empathy for postal workers, there are a couple of key things you can do.

First and foremost, shop local whenever possible. Secondly, contact your elected representatives and let them know that the USPS is on the verge of collapsing under the combined burden of insufficient staffing and surging package volumes. We need help and we need it fast.

Author’s note: Back in November, Ars Technica published an excellent article on Amazon packages overwhelming mail carriers in Minnesota. Other outlets have noted that the volume of Amazon packages routed to the USPS has led to delivery and staffing issues from Maine to Washington state. I would have loved to get this post up in time to coincide with that piece, and the start of holiday shopping season. Unfortunately that’s hard to do while also working 70 to 80 hours a week.

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2 thoughts on “The USPS Is Drowning

  1. So many companies are strictly mail order now, with no local outlets. I’m sure Amazon makes up the bulk of packages going through the mail system, but people are so comfortable with online shopping now and I can’t see that changing. Like, ever. The upper echelon at USPS needs to get real. No one should have to work 70-80 hour weeks.

    • Adding staffing would definitely be the fastest and most effective solution. As harmful and wasteful as buying most consumer goods online is, changing that is going to take a major social movement.

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