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Where’s my mail? As Baltimore-area customers complain of USPS delays, officials wrangle over election ballot deadlines

Some Dundalk residents say they haven't had mail delivered in weeks.

A document sent from New Jersey that didn’t arrive for about a week and a half. Delayed paychecks, mailboxes left empty for days at a stretch, missing-in-action packages from the online orders that have replaced in-person shopping for many during the coronavirus pandemic.

Where is the mail?

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“Something isn’t right,” said Magdalena Czempinski of Dundalk.

At an already unsettling time, recent and widespread disruptions in the U.S. Postal Service’s daily deliveries add another wrinkle given the extra reliance on mail these days — for unemployment debit cards, retirement checks, medications and, for the November presidential election, absentee ballots.

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In a scene replayed across the country, Czempinski joined a line that stretched out from the Dundalk post office throughout the morning Friday as frustrated residents tried to track down missing mail.

She hadn’t received a single piece of mail since sometime last month, even as she sees postal trucks driving by without stopping. ”I’m ready to talk to somebody about it,” Czempinski said.

But definitive answers are hard to come by. Some point to the sheer increase in volume that postal workers have to process and deliver these days, as more people shop from home to help limit possible virus exposure.

Others see a deliberate attempt by President Donald Trump to privatize or even sabotage the postal service with which he’s long feuded. He also has cast doubt on whether it can handle such a large influx of mail-in ballots, which he has said without evidence will lead to massive vote fraud.

Trump’s new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, said Friday that despite the pandemic leading unprecedented numbers to vote by mail, the agency “has ample capacity to deliver all election mail securely and on time ... and we will do so.”

DeJoy has reduced overtime and imposed other measures that have slowed deliveries, critics say. Some see more nefarious intentions beyond the cost-cutting that DeJoy cites, saying the delays could affect the November election, leaving ballots uncounted or casting doubt on the outcome.

U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, was among the lawmakers calling on DeJoy to reverse policies that they said were adopted as cost-cutting measures but have caused delays in mail delivery. A Senate panel that oversees the postal service has launched an investigation into the delays.

“I have heard from constituents in the Second District who have not gotten their mail — including vital medications and paychecks — for weeks and sometimes not at all,” Ruppersberger said in a statement.

Ruppersberger cited reports of a postal service memo instructing workers to leave mail behind at distribution centers if it might delay them. “If we cannot deliver all mail” as a result of staffing shortages, “the mail will not go out,” Ruppersberger quoted the document as saying.

On Friday, DeJoy denied he was deliberately slowing down mail service and said cost cutting was necessary with the agency losing $2.2 billion in the three months that ended in June. He also announced an overhaul of the leadership team, saying it would improve efficiency.

DeJoy said the changes — which also include a management hiring freeze — would improve efficiency and “align functions based on core business operations.‘'

The political battle has thrust the postal service, which polls have shown is the most popular government agency, into the spotlight as residents in the Baltimore area and elsewhere say they simply want to get their mail in a reasonable time. On social media, posters suggested buying stamps and USPS gift shop merchandise to help the beleaguered postal service.

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Jim Mitchell, 51, said he spent nearly 10 days trying to find a document related to a car title transfer that his sister had mailed from New Jersey to his Federal Hill home.

He said his sister sent it priority mail July 28, but he couldn’t locate it after more than a week of speaking with officials at the Hanover Street post office.

After Mitchell posted his frustration on Facebook, his mail carrier reached out to say she’d found it and would get it to him, he said.

Still, he said he’s worried that the current problems could spill over into the general election in November, when the state will be encouraging people to vote via mail-in ballots to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

“We want to feel confident when we drop that letter into the post office box,” Mitchell said.

Although he said Friday that the postal service can handle the expected influx of voting by mail in November, DeJoy also warned that it “cannot correct the errors of [state and local elections boards] if they fail to deploy processes that take our normal processing and delivery standards into account.”

And in fact, the agency has warned Maryland election officials that the state’s deadlines for vote-by-mail ballots are “incongruous” with postal service delivery standards, creating a risk that ballots could go uncounted in November.

In a letter dated July 31, Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the postal service, said that state law permits a voter to request a ballot as late as seven days before the election. That may not be “sufficient time” for the ballot to be mailed to the voter and returned to the elections office with the required Election Day postmark, Marshall said.

Dundalk resident Patty Flack looks through her mail after picking it up at the Dundalk Post Office Friday morning. She had not had mail delivered at her home for three weeks.
Dundalk resident Patty Flack looks through her mail after picking it up at the Dundalk Post Office Friday morning. She had not had mail delivered at her home for three weeks. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

On Wednesday, the Maryland elections board voted to move that deadline to Oct. 20, which still is one day less than the 15 days before Election Day that the postal service says is the minimum time span.

The postal service also advised voters to mail back their completed ballots at least one week before Election Day. But Maryland law allows voters to mail as late as Election Day as long as it’s postmarked by 8 p.m. They have to be received by Nov. 13 to be counted.

The postal service letter does not request state officials change their deadlines to accommodate delivery times, but the service has asked state officials to keep the limitations of the delivery schedule in mind, the letter says.

One election board member, Patrick “P.J.” Hogan, said having as many ballot drop boxes as possible — the state plans to offer about 120 statewide — because they proved to be “a big hit” during the June primary.

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“Given all the news and noise about the postal service,” he said, “I want to see drop boxes used as much as possible.”

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Baltimore County Councilman David Marks agreed. “We need to have every venue possible for allowing people to vote,” he said.

As it stands now, he’s been hearing “horror stories” from residents who haven’t received mail for days, and said he’s particularly concerned about senior citizens and the disabled, who rely on physical mail service to receive prescription medication.

USPS spokeswoman Freda Sauter did not answer questions about whether the coronavirus pandemic is causing delays, instead writing in a statement that customers should “contact us as soon as possible so we can respond quickly to address their concerns.”

At the Dundalk post office on Friday, residents lined up to see if they could retrieve their mail — paychecks, pension checks and the like — with mixed success.

Buzzy Stockman said it had been 16 days since he received anything. Trying to get anyone from the postal service on the phone didn’t work, so he’s stopped two postal workers and contacted local lawmakers in hopes of getting some answers.

”I paid...my taxes,” Stockman said as he stood in line outside. “Send me my mail.”

The postal service, however, doesn’t receive tax dollars and operates on its own sales.

Patty Flack, who hadn’t gotten mail for two to three weeks, was glad to finally receive her paycheck from the county schools, where she is a paraeducator.

Others exited the post office in frustration, hands empty.

Baltimore Sun reporter Phil Davis contributed to this article.

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