All the shopping and shipping that Americans have been doing in the last few weeks has flooded the system with what the USPS says is a “historic volume” of mail and parcels.
“The packages are up for grabs” in Philadelphia, local American Postal Workers Union President Nick Casselli told CNN. “I’ve been in the post for 35 years, I’ve never seen what I see.”
He says there are so many new packages – up to 250,000 a day at the largest processing plant – that the USPS opened a fourth annex just to store them all. There are so many incoming packages that postal workers cannot process them on time, Casselli said.
But it’s not just Philadelphia that is dealing with the historic amount of packages. EU presidents and postal workers across the United States – in Illinois, Michigan, California, Florida, Maine and New York – say they also see record volumes of parcels and backlogs.
They say efforts to remove the backlog are being thwarted by increasing numbers of Covid-19 cases and quarantined postal workers. There are now fewer employees running the machines to deal with the tsunami in mail and packages.
The USPS refused to release any statistics to CNN – on mail volume or employee coronavirus quarantine rates – but APWU National President Mark Dimondstein confirmed to CNN that there are now up to 18,750 USPS employees across the United States on the quarantine list every day.
By comparison, there were about 8,000 on the daily quarantine list before Thanksgiving, he said.
The USPS has struggled with these issues throughout the pandemic, but they have become what APWU New York President Jonathan Smith called “a perfect storm.”
“The U.S. Postal Service, similar to the broader shipping sector, continues to face short-term pressure on cross-category service performance as it rules through a historic record of holiday volume this season,” USPS spokesman Kim Frum told CNN in a declaration. “This negative impact is exacerbated by the temporary staff shortage due to the increase in COVID-19 as well as ongoing capacity challenges with air lift and truck driving to move this historic amount of mail.”
These changes have since been reversed, but DeJoy has signaled that they could return in 2021.
“It’s not a perfect storm, it’s a perfect mess.”
Although the USPS has some machines that can sort packages, a significant portion of the packages fall into a “non-machinable” category, which means they have to be sorted manually. When there is a massive influx of packets in the mail stream, it can take a significant number of USPS employees to process it.
A dramatic increase in positive Covid-19 cases – and employees in quarantine due to exposure to the virus – significantly limits the USPS’s processing power to move the historical volume of packages.
“It’s not a perfect storm, it’s a perfect mess,” Scott Adams, a postal worker and Portland, local APWU president in Maine, told CNN about the double bowel movement from Covid-19 and the historic package volume.
Keith Combs, APWU Detroit president, told CNN that Covid-19 spread in the plants there “like a fire in fire.”
“[The Detroit processing facilities] is lattice locked; they can not take more packages at this time, ”Combs said.
In western New York, mail worker and local APWU president Lori Cash told CNN that mail processing has been significantly reduced because more than 400 employees – the majority in mail processing – are out in quarantine. She said the region has about 6,000 employees.
“There was no one driving the machines,” Cash said.
APWU Los Angeles President Dominic Davis says the USPS International Service Center in Los Angeles does not have enough staff available to quickly clear the mail stacked up to the doors.
All of this translates into significant disruption in mail delivery and Americans not receiving their packages or mail.
When drivers from southern Maine showed up in Philadelphia to pick up their mail, they were turned down, Adams said. The overloaded processing plant had no packages for them because they had not yet been able to process them.
There are so many packages clogging the treatment and distribution facility in Philadelphia, one of the largest in the United States, Casselli said it has become unsafe to work there. Kamme described similar conditions at George W. Young’s processing and distribution facility in Detroit.
The union presidents said there were dozens of tractor trailers – fully loaded with unprocessed packages and mail – sitting outside the treatment facilities and loading bays. Inside, floors and hallways are lined with packages.
According to Cash, union members said mail had to be diverted from Philadelphia to their already overwhelmed treatment facilities in western New York.
This also affected the USPS stations where postmen pick up their mail for the day, Cash and Combs said.
“We would go a few days with very little mail,” Cash said.
However, through time and labor, Cash believes that postal workers are beginning to make a significant dent in the postal delay at the factory in western New York.
“In the last few days, we have processed more mail than we have done in the last week,” she said.
In an effort to remove the backlog, union presidents and postal workers have all told CNN that the USPS uses as much overtime as humanly possible. But it just takes time.
“In the midst of historic volume, the Postal Service continues to expand its network, including ensuring that the right equipment is available to sort, process and deliver a historic amount of mail and packages this holiday season,” said Frum, USPS spokesman.
“Our entire operations team, from assemblies to machining to delivery, worked through the last weekend and continue to work around the clock to address the historical volume. We accept all the volume presented to us, which adds to our challenges.”
Why the USPS is overwhelmed by packages
In previous months, postal workers talking to CNN put the meteoric rise in package volume since the start of the pandemic into context by saying “every day is Christmas.”
Now that it’s the holiday season, this package volume has reached new heights – the USPS says a record – because more people are shopping online. Due to the pandemic, many families send gifts to family and friends for the holidays instead of traveling.
Although private shipping companies like Amazon, UPS or FedEx handle a package, they often use USPS to handle the “last mile” and actually deliver it to a customer. Unlike private companies, USPS delivers to all addresses in the United States.
Dimondstein, the APWU president, says this shows how critical the public mail system is to the country. Unlike the private carriers, they pick up and ship all parcels and mail.
But right now, it is also amplifying the backlog.
Cash said that on top of all their normal USPS mail and packages, FedEx delivers over 800 packages a day at the post office in western New York. They usually receive about 200 a day.
Cash says she has worked for the USPS for 22 years and has never seen anything like it.
FedEx and UPS have also reported shipping delays.
“Capturing large amounts of e-commerce orders, COVID 19 closures and weather events can lead to delivery delays,” reads a banner on the FedEx website.