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Widespread Mail Delays As USPS Faces Unprecedented Backlog

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn now to a huge problem facing the U.S. Postal Service at the moment. And if you were expecting a delivery any time over the past month, you've probably noticed it already. We're talking about holiday packages that totally missed the holiday, important documents that never arrived, prescription refills delayed. They're all part of an unprecedented backlog of mail that's almost paralyzed the postal service in recent weeks, leaving both customers and postal workers frustrated. Hannah Denham has been reporting on this for The Washington Post, and she is with us now to tell us more. Hannah Denham, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

HANNAH DENHAM: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Well, what happened here to create this backlog? I mean, you know, for many people, the Postal Service has really been, you know, one of the great prides of this country. What happened?

DENHAM: Right, well, what happened is sort of an unprecedented year in a lot of ways. Americans increasingly shopped online leading up to the holiday season so they wouldn't have to risk coronavirus infection by shopping in stores. And many also mailed those gifts rather than delivering them in person. But then we had private express carriers, like FedEx and UPS, cut off deliveries for some retailers so they could make the Christmas Eve delivery deadline, which means all those new orders that came in had to go through the Postal Service, which is also responsible for sort of the last mile delivery for those private carriers. And after months of mail delays, record high mail volume, and more and more employees being infected with the coronavirus, the Postal Service has really struggled to keep up with on-time delivery, as it has for months.

MARTIN: And is it just packages, though? I mean, I'm hearing from - I'll just tell you, just from neighbors that mail, regular mail, seems to be delayed as well. Is that the case?

DENHAM: Yes, that is the case - it's mail, it's letters. People are waiting on their medications, on important documents. And some are even worried that this backlog of this mail will even snarl the system for mail-in ballots for the Georgia Senate runoff election.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of the - sort of the politics of all this, I think many people might remember that members of Congress were - you know, called the postmaster general to account over the summer because the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, began implementing cost-cutting initiatives that - including taking some sorting machines offline. And those cuts were supposedly put on pause. But is that whole scenario - which I think was such a big story over the summer - is that affecting what's happening now as well?

DENHAM: It definitely is. You know, the Postal Service publicly denies again and again that these cost-cutting initiatives, like you talked about, has impacted or undermined election mail delivery in any way. But the postmaster general did publicly testify in Congress that he does view his tenure at the Postal Service as responsible for making these long-term reforms. But at this point, we just don't know when or if these policies will still be implemented. It's really up to what the agency decides in the next months after the election season.

MARTIN: You know, it's my understanding that a lot of postal workers have worked without a break since Thanksgiving. I mean, you could see people out there doing this work. So, I mean, their workforce has to be pretty exhausted.

DENHAM: Right, they are.

MARTIN: And I'm just wondering - yeah - what what is the outlook for 2021?

DENHAM: You know, it's hard to say. I mean, the surging coronavirus infections are not going away anytime soon. And unfortunately, they're really affecting these postal employees. Workers are getting sick. Their families are sick. They're staying home. They've hired, you know, 100,000 more workers to sort of address this issue, but we're just sort of seeing this perfect storm here of difficulty that the system and its workers are really facing.

MARTIN: That was Hannah Denham. She's a business reporter for The Washington Post, and she's talking to us about the backlog at the Postal Service. Hannah Denham, thanks so much for talking with us today.

DENHAM: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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