The holiday rush and Utah’s low unemployment are a tough combo for the post office
When no mail arrived at Brad Nordgren’s house for two days straight this holiday season, he knew something was amiss.
“We always get mail,” the Holladay resident said. “On Wednesday, which was the first day that we didn't receive mail, we usually get a Wednesday newspaper from the Deseret News in the mail.”
Nordgren called the U.S. Postal Service's national customer service hotline to report the issue. He said he was greeted with a recording prompting him to leave a message, which he did.
The next day, Nordgren stopped by his neighborhood post office to ask about the matter.
“They took a few minutes and came back and they said, ‘Well, we didn't have anybody to cover that route,’” he said.
The clerks assured Nordgren the problem had been resolved and he would begin to receive his mail again. He did — that night.
“After that, I noticed that the mail was coming real late — like, 6:00 or 7:00 at night,” he said. “So I figured they probably had somebody doing a double shift to cover the route.”
“Customers can expect deliveries from early in the morning to the evening, and in some cases, package deliveries on Sundays through the holiday season,” said Rod Spurgeon, the region’s Postal Service spokesperson.
“In the rare occasion when we are unable to deliver to a particular neighborhood due to the increased holiday workload, we make deliveries a priority for [the] next day so no one goes without mail for more than two days,” he said.
But such service disruptions aren’t as rare this year, according to Michael Wahlquist, president of the Salt Lake City branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
“It's never been common up until now,” he said. “This is the first year we've really seen this.”
Wahlquist said post offices in his branch are “very low staffed” with mail carriers. When there aren't enough on hand to deliver all of the mail, priority goes to package delivery, he said. Other parcels may not be delivered on certain mail routes for a day or two.
“I know they're trying to cycle through so it's just not the same routes that aren’t going out all the time,” he said.
Wahlquist said the staffing shortage is among the Postal Service’s entry-level “city carrier assistants.” These are “non-career” status employees that don’t have the same retirement and health benefits that “career” employees enjoy, he explained. He said post offices in his branch have only about a quarter of the assistants they need.
Under the current union contract, carrier assistants have to work for a maximum of two years before they receive that “career” status, and Wahlquist said the average wait for his carriers is currently just under a year and a half. But he expects that to change as more carriers retire and assistants are promoted to fill those positions.
“I do expect it to drop below the year mark pretty quick,” he said.
Wahlquist said he thinks the shortage of carrier assistants is due to a “perfect storm” of inflation, low unemployment and a “thriving Utah economy.”
The starting pay for carriers nationwide is currently $19.33 per hour. Wahlquist said it’s hard for the Postal Service to attract workers at that rate.
“A lot of fast food places are now hiring at $18 an hour,” he said. “So people look at the job and they say, ‘Well, I can do a lot easier work for almost the same money,’” he said.
Retaining carriers can also be difficult, Wahlquist said.
“Right now we're working a lot of hours at the post office, and for some people, that's a little overwhelming,” he said. “When you do it for eight or 10 or even 12 hours a day, it can definitely be a little harder than you think.”
Wahlquist said overtime can be mandatory for carriers, and there’s plenty of it to go around during the peak holiday season. From the end of October through the end of the year, a 10-12 hour workday is typical, he said.
“The holidays are busy times for us and that means hard work and often extended hours for our employees,” Spurgeon said.
“While we’re not exempt from the widespread challenges in the labor market, we’ve been able to flex our resources and keep up with the relatively short holiday period,” he said. “We bulk up for the holidays and we have continued hiring needs due to normal attrition.”
Spurgeon also said customers who have questions about their service should do as Nordgren did and reach out to their local post office or call the national hotline, 800-ASK-USPS.
“The earlier customers notify us of possible issues, the sooner we can resolve them,” the he said.
Nordgren had a positive experience when he reported his issue. His call to the hotline was returned, and he said he was pleasantly received when he went to the post office in person.
“The lady I talked to was really nice,” he said. “They were trying to be helpful.”
He also said there has been “no problem lately” with his mail delivery, and it’s back to being delivered during the daytime hours. But that Wednesday edition of the Deseret News is forever lost.
“It never came, not even late,” he said.
Disclosure: KUER’s Rob Winder is a former employee of the U.S. Postal Service.