The crush of heavy holiday shipping volume coupled with staffing shortages caused by rising COVID-19 infections has led the U.S. Postal Service to warn of delivery delays a week ahead of Christmas.
And Baltimoreans, frustrated about the delays, have taken to social media lately to express their dismay.
Residents tracking their packages on the Postal Service’s website report that many shipments containing gifts, medicine and other purchases appear delayed as they navigate the region’s mail centers. And some complain they haven’t seen much of anything land in their mailbox for days.
At times, a queue of postal trucks can be seen along Fayette Street outside of the main post office in downtown Baltimore.
It’s not just a problem here.
“While every year the Postal Service carefully plans for peak holiday season, a historic record of holiday volume compounded by a temporary employee shortage due to the COVID-19 surge, and capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail are leading to temporary delays,” read a U.S. Postal Service news release.
A Baltimore District spokesperson for the Postal Service declined to comment about the severity of staff shortages in the Baltimore area and the volume of mail being processed, instead referring to the agency’s statement from Monday.
Private shipping companies are facing delays, too.
“Record high volumes of e-commerce orders, COVID-19 closures and weather events may cause delivery delays,” reads a banner atop the FedEx website.
Courtney Jenkins, a postal clerk at a Postal Service facility in Linthicum, called the situation a “logistical nightmare.”
“I could call it some type of trifecta: COVID, staffing, increase in volume,” said Jenkins, who’s also the director of organization and legislation for Local 181 of the American Postal Workers Union. “We’re up against maybe one of our greatest challenges this year.”
And it comes after the Postal Service came under intense scrutiny in advance of November’s presidential election. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy drew fierce pushback over the summer after setting restrictions on overtime pay for postal workers and removing mail equipment, such as mail sorting machines and mailboxes, including in Baltimore.
“The Postal Service could have projected this may have been the case back in the summertime, when we were experiencing those delays that came about with the new Postmaster General,” said Jenkins, adding that the department should have sent out more communication to customers warning them of the potential for holiday season delays.
Support for the Postal Service should make its way into the next coronavirus relief package, said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who was vocal critic of DeJoy’s cost-cutting measures over the summer.
“While our mail carriers are facing higher volumes of packages than ever and unique challenges from COVID-19, it’s clear that the efforts of the Trump Administration to undermine USPS have had far-reaching consequences,” Van Hollen said in a statement.
Jenkins said the backlog is visible in the Linthicum facility.
“Mountains of mail. Mail as far as the eye could see,” Jenkins said. “There are no walls in the facility, so you would be able to stand in one end of the facility and at least see most of the other side of it. There’s just a lot of mail, stacked high.”
The Postal Service has brought on extra seasonal workers, Jenkins said, but tackling the incredible volume remains a challenge. Jenkins said some of his co-workers have been working seven days a week to help address the backlog, and others have logged 12-hour days.
On top of it all, anxiety about the coronavirus looms. Jenkins estimated that a few dozen of his Linthicum co-workers have had to take off of work during the pandemic due to exposure to the virus, or as a result of a positive test.
“All eyes are on the Postal Service and we as postal workers — we feel that,” Jenkins said.
Tom Weisser, who lives in North Baltimore’s Guilford neighborhood, said he’s been waiting on an order of coffee from Philadelphia. It shipped on Dec. 9, and arrived at a post office facility in District Heights three days later.
On Dec. 16, he got an update: “Your package will arrive later than expected, but it’s on its way.”
He said it’s a particularly challenging time for postal delays, since plenty of people are hoping to avoid shopping in person.
“People are more reliant on getting this stuff in the mail because they don’t want to risk getting COVID,” Weisser said. “So, you know, I can go to Whole Foods and buy the same coffee, but I never do.”
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Dennis Betzel, who lives in the Westgate neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore, said mail delays have made it more difficult for him and his wife to run their side business. She sells custom jewelry, he said, and waited on an order of holiday themed charms for more than a week.
“It’s like, how do we get it there? So, we have literally driven packages to people’s houses,” Betzel said.
The couple has made trips out to Perry Hall, Parkville and Kingsville to deliver packages to customers, he said. And they have purchased a scale in hopes of avoiding lengthy trips to the post office to get the proper postage for packages.
Jocelyn Reader, a scientific researcher who lives in Pigtown, is waiting on handmade body scrubs, a custom T-shirt, decorative crystals — all carefully planned Christmas gifts for friends, co-workers and family members.
But she might have to print out photos of her soon-to-be gifts and tuck them into Christmas cards, since plenty of them don’t seem likely to arrive in time.
”Most of the stuff was ordered Dec. 3, Dec. 4 and so in my head I was like ‘Yeah, I’m ahead of the curve’ because I’m normally a really last-minute shopper,” Reader said. “I was feeling really proud of myself. And it still didn’t work out.”