Lack of Information Continues About Delays at USPS Facilities

As the latest wave of illness related to the ongoing pandemic sweeps across the country, the Postal Service, like other businesses, is suffering from staffing shortages as workers become sickened, or are absent to quarantine or care for family members.

Postal officials have stated that USPS facilities typically can have a 3-4% absentee rate – employees on leave for one reason or another – but that some are now facing staffing shortfalls of up to 20%.  For example, if an incoming dock operation at a plant had an approved staffing of 20, and could function with 19 or 18, it likely would be challenged to meet unload times if only 15 or 16 employees were available.

Impact on customers

As pockets of pandemic impact manifest themselves in different places, and absenteeism at USPS facilities follows, it affects the unload times of vehicles depositing mail and parcels from both customers and logistics providers.  As the inflow of shipments continues, but the unload times lengthen, delays quickly become hours long, resulting in unexpected costs for the companies trying to make the deliveries and manage transportation schedules.

Isolated delays of thirty or sixty minutes have ballooned into delays of ten hours or more, and the number of delayed shipment reports has followed.  In some cases, drivers and their loads have had to wait over twenty-four hours to reach the dock for unloading.

One company commented that delayed unloading reports from its drivers grew from a norm of five or so to nearly seventy over just a week.

Another company – a logistics provider – reported that its driver arrived for an 8am appointment but, after waiting for hours to have the shipment unloaded, finally had to give up and bring the load back to the company’s hub.  As a result, the company had to pay at least $2,000 for the day, then pay again to re-ship the load the next day.  Beyond that, the company noted, its customers would blame it for the resulting delay in depositing the mail – and would not accept the explanation that it was caused by the USPS.

Though absenteeism and isolated hot spots have been typical since the pandemic began earlier this year, hours-long unloading delays at USPS facilities became a more serious and widespread problem in late November and early December.  Unloading delays of eight to twenty-eight hours have occurred at facilities such as Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Eastern Maine, Indianapolis, Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Southern Maryland.

The delays have grown from one-off challenges at this or that location to widespread problems impacting critical facilities in locations all over the country.

Yet to be learned is how the upsurge in unloading delays tied to absenteeism is later reflected in downstream delays – likely for the same reason – in both processing and delivery.  What can be expected are complaints from customers – ratepayers – about delays in reaching their customers with messages or parcels and the concurrent distribution of complaints to every participant in the process, from the mail producer to the logistics provider to the USPS itself.

Responding or not

Demonstrating the same reticence to acknowledge the challenges it’s facing now just as it’s shown since at least the onset of the pandemic, the Postal Service has been less than transparent in advising commercial mailers and logistics providers about the facilities having serious staffing shortages.

Typically, mailers and shippers find out through experience rather than USPS notices that a processing facility is having problems getting incoming shipments unloaded in a reasonable time.  Although the USPS gets a constant stream of information from its network of facilities, little gets shared with customers, and – despite this information flow – instances of the agency learning of delays from those customers are not unusual.

Calls with senior postal officials late last week revealed that the agency was still deliberating how to message to mailers and shippers.  While the USPS clearly was aware of the need to do something, the agency’s executives reportedly were grappling not only with the format for disseminating information but with a policy decision about the concept of such dissemination itself.

As of this writing, no decision seems to have been reached, at least to the extent that the absence of information about facility conditions and delays is any indicator.

Too long

For at least eight months, there’s been a legitimate need for the Postal Service to keep its customers – ratepayers, mail producers, and logistics providers – fully apprised of its operating condition, notably where more than incidental delays are occurring in processing and delivery operations.  To date, it has largely failed to do so.

The reason is not a lack of information.  The agency has a robust data infrastructure that keeps its executives informed of facility status, volume on hand, processing times, and every other relevant indicator needed to monitor and measure operational performance.  Whether it fails to pass along any of this knowledge because of legal concerns, political fears, or simply an unwillingness to disclose what’s obvious anyway is unknown.  What is known is that this failure neither prevents external awareness of the agency’s operating condition – it eventually becomes obvious anyway – nor allows customers to make reasonable adjustments of their own to work around USPS operational issues.

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The impact of the pandemic falls equally on the USPS, its customers, and the mailing industry, so no-one is going to blame the Postal Service because its employees are affected by the pandemic and that postal operations are impaired by the resulting absenteeism.  That leaves open the question of why the agency cannot simply keep people informed about what’s going on.

A USPS Industry Alert is issued if a small post office is closed because the power is off, so why such a notice can’t be published if a major processing facility is experiencing delays of eight hours or more in unloading trailers remains a mystery.

At a time when the future use of hard-copy mail remains far from a certainty, the continued opacity of the Postal Service on matters critical to its customers is simply unacceptable.

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