Firms put so-so stamp on mail service locally


Although Baltimore's mail delivery got the worst marks in the country in a national survey, local businesses that depend on the mail give the U.S. Postal Service here mixed reviews.

Late deliveries and tardy pickups were the most common complaints in an informal survey of local businesses, institutions and nonprofit organizations. A few managers voiced strong criticism, while others said the Postal Service was doing its best at a tough job.

Most spoke of minor annoyances -- but in a concession to reality, none operates under the expectation that the letter carrier will deliver overnight.

A Postal Service survey conducted by Price Waterhouse that was released last week showed that Baltimore had the worst mail service in the country between May 28 and Sept. 16. Only 66 percent of the first-class letters that were supposed to be delivered overnight made it to their destinations on time.

That doesn't surprise Frank Suber, mail operations manager at Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., the country's oldest stockbrokerage.

"A lot of things, I think, need to be improved," Mr. Suber said. "We always have problems with first-class mail, not getting it after several days."

He said the firm's first-class mail takes several days to arrive from other parts of the state, while two-day Priority Mail often takes three days or more. Frequently the stockbrokerage -- which handles 3,000 to 4,000 pieces a day -- will get the wrong mail, Mr. Suber said, and employees complain that they don't get checks or correspondence on time.

The Postal Service occasionally does not pick up the mail on time, he said, costing the firm money.

"The pickups are supposed to be at 6 p.m. when the office closes, but we have to pay overtime for the guys to stay around when the [Postal Service truck] is late," Mr. Suber said. "It causes a lot of headaches."

At the Maryland Department of Human Resources, expectations the Postal Service also are low.

"We never count on a first-class letter getting there overnight," said Helen Szablya, director of the Public Information department, which handles 15,000 to 60,000 pieces of mail daily. "If you accept the fact it's not going to happen, then you adjust."

Mrs. Szablya said that the agency's mailing departments have not noticed any changes.

"This is not a system that just happened overnight," she said. "It's about the same that it has always been. . . . It's not like I can compare [our system] to the one in Iowa."

The admissions office at the Johns Hopkins University, which receives several bags of mail a day, has not reported many problems -- except for one large New Year's Eve gaffe.

That's when the department didn't get its usual load of mail. It was a critical problem because Dec. 31 was the last delivery before the undergraduate application deadline.

"Apparently, they got a small delivery of mail and the rest of the mail never did come," said university spokesman Dennis O'Shea. "In April, when the [acceptance and rejection] letters go out, we got about 10 calls from people asking why they did not receive a letter."

Other businesses and agencies reported more positive experiences.

"The Postal Service has a tough job. It is more than just dropping a letter in the box," said Tom Wojtek of the Legg Mason stockbrokerage. "We have always found that their management is very helpful."

Officials at The United Way of Central Maryland, which handles 1,000 to 2,000 pieces of first-class mail a day, also reported no problems.

"The mail comes in on scheduled times," said business manager Barbara Artis.

Walter Sickorski, supervisor of inventory for the Mass Transit Administration, said his office, which sends out about 1,000 invoices a week, hasn't noticed any problems.

"I heard about the mail problems but we have had no change at all," Mr. Sickorski said.

Nor were there many complaints at the Motor Vehicle Administration, which handles nearly 40,000 pieces of mail a day. "Delayed mail happens only occasionally, but overall the service is good and problems are minor," said Jack Joyce, director of public information.

Wendy Bynion, a spokeswoman for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Central Maryland, said the insurer has seen nothing serious enough to cause any problems.

At Maryland Public Television, which handles nearly 3,000 pieces of mail a week, managers have been checking since they heard about the Postal Service's poor rating.

"Ever since we started hearing about the problems they were having, we look at the postmarks," said Robbie Jefferson,

mailroom inventory supervisor. While he has noticed little problem with incoming mail, he said outgoing mail hardly ever arrives on time.

"We find that it takes a week to get out there," Mr. Jefferson said.

At Rep. Helen Delich Bentley's office, staffer Virginia Warfield said the congresswoman receives occasional complaints about late mail.

The Postal Service has announced plans to improve service by hiring 400 new employees, installing "Baltimore Only" mailboxes, and employing new machines that read previously illegible addresses. Employees at the city's main post office on Fayette Street have been working extra weekend shifts to keep up with first-class mail.

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