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U.S. Post Office Strains Under Unprecedented Volume Of Business

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You may be disappointed by what's under the Christmas tree this year, or maybe more likely by what's not under the tree. The post office is experiencing an unprecedented volume of business, and, as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, as many as 25% of packages are late.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: This is always overtime season for the Postal Service, but the pandemic has brought the workload to a new level.

MANNY WENGINER: Unbearable.

SMITH: Manny Wenginer (ph), reloading his truck just outside Boston last night, says the downtown processing center is overwhelmed.

WENGINER: The warehouse is packed - boxes from wall to wall. Just the trucks waiting to get into the dock for, like, three hours waiting in line just to unload.

DEBBIE ASPELL: Oh, we've been bombed.

SMITH: Postal clerk Debbie Aspell is feeling it from both sides - working overtime and trying to get Christmas gifts to her own family, like the pajamas she bought for her grown son in Texas.

ASPELL: And I keep tracking it, and it says it's still in Boston. But, you know, no matter how old the kids are, you don't want to see them wake up Christmas morning with nothing.

ELIZABETH PRUIT: Here is our tree. And so we are very big on ornaments.

SMITH: There are no gifts yet under Elizabeth Pruit’s tree in a suburb west of Boston. The big haul she ordered online in November is three weeks late, and her 8-year-old daughter Brooke is bracing for yet another week of waiting.

BROOKE: That would be terrible. But then we'd be celebrating Christmas on New Year's Eve.

SMITH: The Postal Service's on-time delivery rate has sunk to about 75%, from 95% last season, as the pandemic has driven people to shop more online instead of in stores and to ship holiday gifts instead of bringing them in person. The deluge has also meant dangerous delays for prescriptions. Terri Vacca is waiting on two for her 81-year-old mom that she ordered two weeks ago.

TERRI VACCA: That's where the anxiety comes in because she's talked about rationing this medication by taking it every other day instead of every day. But it is essential.

SMITH: The post office declined to speak to NPR for this report but in an email said staffers are working around the clock to handle the, quote, "historic volume." It's estimated to be 40% over normal, with some days spiking much higher. Even 50,000 extra temp workers aren't enough to keep up.

SCOTT HOFFMAN: It's a tsunami. And we're going to do as best we can, but there's no stopping a tsunami.

SMITH: Scott Hoffman, head of the Boston Postal Workers Union, says just when post offices need all hands on deck, some 20,000 postal workers are either out sick with COVID or in quarantine. Hoffman says packages are being diverted around understaffed areas just to keep them moving, even if in the wrong direction.

HOFFMAN: I mean, I hate to say it, it's like a giant sewer system. Everything has to keep flowing. If you don't - if it's not flowing, it's backing up. And then how are you going to dig out?

SMITH: Compounding the problem for the Postal Service is having to pick up the slack for private carriers - for example, when UPS stopped taking certain packages. Mark Dimondstein, head of the National Postal Workers Union, says the post office has had to deal with the overflow.

MARK DIMONDSTEIN: The private carriers got overwhelmed and had a safety valve, which is to tell the customers to get lost. The Postal Service does not have that safety valve. The post office will never say no.

SMITH: In fact, by law, it can't. Some suggest the Postal Service's delays are also exacerbated by cost-cutting initiatives implemented by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over the summer. But others dispute the notion, insisting it's the deluge of Christmas packages that's causing the current delays.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Unintelligible).

SMITH: Back around the Christmas tree, Elizabeth Pruit and her kids are making peace with the likelihood that their gifts aren't going to make it by Christmas.

PRUIT: You know, we're healthy. And, you know, it is what it is. So they have to learn, too, that sometimes things don't always play out as planned.

SMITH: Indeed, some years, far more than others. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.