A thinly stretched work force combined with glitches in a new, high-tech sorting system helped make the Baltimore area's mail delivery worst in the nation, U.S. Postal Service managers and labor leaders said yesterday.
Efficiency suffered at the beginning of the accounting period that began in May and ended Sept. 16, they conceded. But the addition of more workers and efforts to get the bugs out of the computerized system has brought the service in recent weeks up to the best levels of the year, they said.
"I was really surprised to hear that we did so badly, because I thought we were doing real well," said Richard R. Hughes Sr., administrative vice president of Mail Handlers Local 305, which represents workers who sort mail in the main post office.
Too much mail was coming in too late, said Richard Rudez, district manager of customer services for Baltimore. Last spring, mail picked up from the region often wasn't canceled in the main post office at Fayette and Front streets until 11:30 p.m. Since then, several changes have been made to the collection and sorting systems, bringing the mail in two hours earlier.
That difference allows city mail to be sorted and ready for delivery earlier the next day, he said.
The main post office serves Baltimore and most of Baltimore, Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.
Mail carriers, informed of the city's ranking as they worked their routes yesterday, expressed disbelief at the findings.
"It's kind of hard to believe, to be honest with you," said Lee Whitaker as he delivered mail on West 40th Street.
"Most carriers I know are really hustling and trying to do a good job," said Mr. Whitaker, who has been a mail carrier for six years.
Timothy Haney, senior manager of district operations, said difficulties with starting a high-tech sorting system created a bottleneck that turned the beginning of July into the worst period of the year.
With most of the bugs worked out of the system, the four weeks before Sept. 16 were the best this year, he said.
Many postal employees were peeved, or at least puzzled, by the low rating in the wake of recent technological improvements.
Steven Ferguson, a Baltimore mail carrier for 19 years, questioned the survey's accuracy.
"From my outlook, the mail gets out, and it gets delivered, and my customers have no problem with me," said Mr. Ferguson, who was getting the mail out in Park Heights yesterday.
"We do the best we can with what we have to do it with," said an angry Dale Davis, a 36-year-old mail flow coordinator in the main post office, which sorts an average of 5.5 million pieces of mail a day.
"We don't take time off here. When all your other occupations stop their businesses, we're working," Mr. Davis said.
Sometimes that means working to a contract that allows management to require employees to put in 10 hours a day and six days a week, said Ron Liszewski, president of the Baltimore local of the American Postal Workers Union. Many employees volunteer to work 12-hour days and seven-day weeks, he said.
Mr. Liszewski said management, Mr. Rudez in particular, has been leaning too heavily on overtime work and resisted union leaders' pleas for more workers.
"How often can you keep working seven days a week? They're burning out," he said.
Mr. Rudez said an aggressive hiring program between July and November eventually will add 231 letter carriers, 61 customer service clerks and 96 mail processing clerks.
But Mr. Liszewski was not impressed.
"Sixty-one clerks for customer service?" he said. "A week and a half ago, he said he did not have the authority to hire anybody."
Several carriers said that they're continually working overtime to cope with increased mail volumes and a shortage of carriers.
Levi Planter III, who has had a mail route in Hampden for six years, said the city lost many mail carriers three years ago in an early-retirement buyout by the postal service.
"We do need a lot of help, and we need our routes to be shortened also," Mr. Planter said. "Some people think we're just breezing along all day, but we have pretty long routes."
Mr. Planter said his route is supposed to take five hours to walk, but it actually requires 6 1/2 to seven hours of pounding the pavement.
"A lot of times you miss breakfast and lunch to make your route on time," he said.
Carriers said they would like the postal service to hire more full-time carriers instead of temporary replacements.
Even some of the Baltimore-area managers are temporary employees. But that's a good thing, Acting Plant Manager Joe Lennon said.
Recognizing that Baltimore's service needed to be improved, the Mid-Atlantic Area headquarters sent managers who ran successful operations elsewhere to help shape up the city's service.
Mr. Haney is one of those trouble-shooters, he said, sent in from an exemplary Incoming Mail Facility near the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
It was the new team of managers that helped restructure sorting and collection, he said, getting mail to the main post office earlier in the evening.
They also helped get the troublesome new computerized bar-code sorting system running.
The system digitally transmits a picture of the front of hand-written envelopes or other mail the Baltimore computer has difficulty reading to a sorting center in North Carolina where employees use another computer to figure out the address, then send the information back to Baltimore, where a bar code is printed on such mail.
The system now is sorting 604,000 pieces of mail a day that otherwise would have had to be sorted using only sight and memory of streets and postal routes. One person on the automated system can do the work of six on a 1960s-era sorting machine, Mr. Rudez said.
But Mr. Haney said much of the credit for the more recent improvement in efficiency belongs to rank-and-file workers.
"There are good people here, and they really turned the numbers around," he said.
Despite the criticism of Baltimore mail delivery service, two customers at the Hampden post office in the city had no complaints about their mail delivery.
"I look in the box, and the mail is there," Carl Thompson of Waverly said. "Sometimes I wish it wouldn't come so fast."
Glenda Gentner of Reservoir Hill had only praise for her mail carrier, but she didn't have many kind words for the employees at her local post office on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"They have an attitudinal problem," she said. "They don't say thank you, please, or kiss my grits."