Post Office Can’t Satisfy Christmas Demand

More packages are being mailed than ever and USPS can't keep up.

WaPo (“Millions of Christmas presents may arrive late because of Postal Service delays“):

Competing crises are slamming the U.S. Postal Service just days before Christmas, imperiling the delivery of millions of packages, as the agency contends with spiking coronavirus cases in its workforce, unprecedented volumes of e-commerce orders and the continuing fallout from a hobbled cost-cutting program launched by the postmaster general.

Nearly 19,000 of the agency’s 644,000 workers have called in sick or are isolating because of the virus, according to the American Postal Workers Union. Meanwhile, packages have stacked up inside some postal facilities, leading employees to push them aside to create narrow walkways on shop floors.

Some processing plants are now refusing to accept new mail shipments. The backlogs are so pronounced that some managers have reached out to colleagues in hopes of diverting mail shipments to nearby facilities. But often, those places are full, too. Meanwhile, packages sit on trucks for days waiting for floor space to open so the loads can be sorted.

“[Customers] are screaming, ‘Where’s my package? Why did it go to Jacksonville, Fla., when it’s going to Miami?’ ” said Martin Ramirez, president of the APWU Local 170 in Ohio. “I can’t speak on that. I’ve never seen this before where these places are overflowing.”

The end result: Many families won’t see online orders arrive in time for Christmas.

Through Dec. 12, the start of the Postal Service’s busiest period for package deliveries, parcel volume was up 14 percent compared with the same period in 2019, the agency told mailing industry officials. That surge has employees in some areas working upward of 80 hours a week, including some who have worked every day since Thanksgiving without a weekend. In Philadelphia, people are scheduled to work Christmas Day, said one mail carrier, who like others in this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.

Mail performance has plummeted: Only 75.3 percent of first-class mail, such as letters and bills, arrived within the standard one- to three-day delivery window the week of Dec. 5, according to the most recent agency data available. This time last year, the mail service’s on-time score was closer to 95 percent.

Private express carriers, also inundated by package shipments, have stopped serving some retailers, sending more items through the Postal Service.

The agency is receiving as many as 6 million packages a day since FedEx and UPS enacted restrictions on large-volume retail shippers in early December, according to industry tracking firm ShipMatrix. For the week of Dec. 6, FedEx delivered 93.9 percent of its parcels on time, UPS delivered 96.1 percent, and the Postal Service, 87.5 percent. The agency’s drop in performance compared with the previous two-week period held up more than 3.5 million parcels by one or more days.

“Companies like FedEx and UPS have done some pretty dramatic things to limit the flow, the volume of packages through their system,” said Former Army secretary and GOP congressman John McHugh, chairman of the Package Coalition, an advocacy group made up of businesses and consumers that rely on the Postal Service for mail delivery. “Postal Service can’t and wouldn’t do that. They take on all comers. So you can well imagine that those are who are being turned away from FedEx, UPS and perhaps others are in all likelihood going to turn to the Postal Service.”

The culprit I expected when I clicked on to the story gets only a passing mention in paragraph 12:

Adding to the slowdowns is on-the-ground confusion over the cost-cutting initiatives that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy implemented during the summer and then paused at the direction of five federal courts. The Postal Service has appealed several of those rulings.

So, aside from “confusion,” the much-ballyhooed slowdown hasn’t happened.

It looks, then, like the culprits are these:

  • The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards online shopping
  • We’ve gotten so accustomed to one- and two-day delivery that we’re not adjusting to this
  • Lots of workers are calling in sick
  • The Post Office is the mailer of last resort, whereas private delivery services can refuse to take on more than they can handle

Because they’re able to throttle the work they take on, FedEx and UPS will maintain their track records whereas USPS will look inefficient—generating more calls to privatize them entirely.

One presumes, though, that most people who don’t get their packages on time will blame Amazon and other retailers rather than the shipping companies. After all, they’re the ones who promised to get us the stuff in time for Christmas.

So, another fallout is likely to be that Amazon will invest more in its own delivery infrastructure. Already, a goodly number of their packages arrive at our house in their signature vans. But we’ll sometimes get two or three deliveries a day: one from an Amazon van, one from the USPS, and another from UPS. I suspect we’ll mostly see the vans in the coming years.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Government
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kingdaddy says:

    UPS might be struggling, too. I’ve had two packages sent from Amazon via UPS suffer unexplained delays.

    2
  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Because they’re able to throttle the work they take on, FedEx and UPS

    In all my years I’ve never seen anything like this, James. Call them and they will pick it up. Go to one of the UPS stores and drop off your package. They don’t ever say, “Sorry, we’ve reached our limit for the day.” So what are you speaking of?

  3. gVOR08 says:

    It may, or may not, be true that DeJoy isn’t a major problem. But his brilliant private sector business management acumen sure doesn’t seem to be helping any.

    And whether USPS efficiency is better, worse, or the same as FEDEX and UPS has nothing to do with Republican calls for privatization. People used to say the Corps of Engineers is like a beaver, can’t stand the sight of flowing water. Republicans can’t stand the sight of a revenue stream they can’t dip into.

    4
  4. Jen says:

    So, aside from “confusion,” the much-ballyhooed slowdown hasn’t happened.

    I’m not sure that one can draw the conclusion that DeJoy’s decisions have had no effect. Manchester NH is one of the places that decommissioned a large-scale mail sorter without replacing it, and our mail has been sketchy for months, at least since July. My husband received a piece of mail yesterday that had been posted on Nov. 30–from inside the state. It was paid for at the first-class rate.

    The decommissioning of machinery is likely having some effect, just not as large/significant as other factors.

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  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    “Companies like FedEx and UPS have done some pretty dramatic things to limit the flow, the volume of packages through their system,” said Former Army secretary and GOP congressman John McHugh, chairman of the Package Coalition, an advocacy group made up of businesses and consumers that rely on the Postal Service for mail delivery. “Postal Service can’t and wouldn’t do that. They take on all comers. So you can well imagine that those are who are being turned away from FedEx, UPS and perhaps others are in all likelihood going to turn to the Postal Service.

    Seems that the ability of private companies to refuse service is an outstanding argument against the privatization of the postal service.

    One thing I don’t understand about the enthusiasm that R’s have for privatizing the postal service, don’t they realize that it will be the rural and small city constituents that will see their costs sky rocket and their service plummet? Today FedEx and UPS often avoid last mile delivery in rural areas by dropping the packages at the local post office for delivery by the USPS, that passes each address 6 days a week. I guess the legislation could socialize the cost and require equality of service, but if the privatized service is regulated in that manner, is that privatization?

    6
  6. @OzarkHillbilly: I think the point is that USPS delivers to any address while the privates in some cases can’t (say to PO boxes) or are unwilling/unable (to distant rural addresses).

    In other words, only USPS delivers universally to all addresses everywhere in the US–this fact, by definition, would affect their aggregate efficiency.

    3
  7. Kathy says:

    Well, look who’s waging war on Christmas now.

    9
  8. Bob@Youngstown says:

    Priority package mailed 12/10 from Youngstown to Philadelphia,
    arrived in Philadelphia Distribution @4:19 am on Dec 11.
    It has not moved since.

    BTW, text notification of USPS Priority mail tracking is very helpful.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    Unless you’re worried about getting medications before you run out, I gotta chalk this one up to “First World people’s problems.”

    (I used to live in Japan and the U.K. and rapidly got used to weeks/months package delays depending on the back-up at the custom office and how they were processing things. I never understood how it would take longer for a package to reach me in London from the U.S. than an equivalent U.S. package to a tiny fishing village in Japan.)

    4
  10. Barry says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Privatize the businesses, and then give lavish rural delivery subsidies.

    And then still throttle rural service.

  11. Barry says:

    @grumpy realist: “All political movements eventually die, but it’s hard to think of one that flamed out so spectacularly and damagingly as second wave feminism. ”

    First, a lot of people do depend on mail order prescriptions, or other urgent stuff.

    Second, we know that the Trump appointees are sabotaging the system, or were as of Fall.

    Third, it’s not customs; this is internal US shipping.

    2
  12. R. Dave says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: In all my years I’ve never seen anything like this, James. Call them and they will pick it up. Go to one of the UPS stores and drop off your package. They don’t ever say, “Sorry, we’ve reached our limit for the day.” So what are you speaking of?

    I believe he’s referring to this observation from the quoted article:

    Private express carriers, also inundated by package shipments, have stopped serving some retailers, sending more items through the Postal Service. The agency is receiving as many as 6 million packages a day since FedEx and UPS enacted restrictions on large-volume retail shippers in early December, according to industry tracking firm ShipMatrix.

    So, the restrictions from UPS and FedEx seem to be limited to large retailers, not individuals shipping a package here and there.

    2
  13. Barry says:

    @Barry: Sorry, my copy and paste is going f-ing nuts on my computer; time to reboot.

  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    Amazon is not without errors. Amazon informed me yesterday that I had received a package I had not received, while also telling me I’d soon be getting a package I got two days ago.

    2
  15. Barry says:

    @R. Dave: “So, the restrictions from UPS and FedEx seem to be limited to large retailers, not individuals shipping a package here and there.”

    Which still means that they are throttling service, and that that load will presumably go to the USPS.

    1
  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    It seems that I’ve been really lucky with my Christmas mailing this year. One thing that was promised for delivery after Christmas was delivered about 5 days ago, and the other thing was delivered 3 business days after order. I’ve had no problems with the Post Office at all.

    On the other hand, FedEx usually takes two attempts to succeed and UPS has never actually successfully delivered to me at my current address. Ever. Three. All. Returned. Undeliverable.

    1
  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    don’t they realize that it will be the rural and small city constituents that will see their costs sky rocket and their service plummet?

    Don’t realize or don’t care? First, they’ll blame it on Biden. Or Obama, or coastal elites who don’t care about real ‘muricans. Second, I’m sure you realize the GOPs are not really populists. Sure, the base voters are, by definition, populi. But Trump, McConnell, McCarthy, Coney-Barrett, DeJoy, Koch, any prominent GOP?

    It’s getting to be a thing with me that the supposedly liberal MSM don’t make a distinction between “populism” and “faux populism”. I realize that distinction is muddied by supposed populism so often being faux, but still, it seems a significant distinction that should be made.

    3
  18. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: It’s right there in the article: they’ve radically throttled back what they’ll take from Amazon et al.

    Private express carriers, also inundated by package shipments, have stopped serving some retailers, sending more items through the Postal Service.

    The agency is receiving as many as 6 million packages a day since FedEx and UPS enacted restrictions on large-volume retail shippers in early December, according to industry tracking firm ShipMatrix.

    Walk-up customers are manageable.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Years ago I got a postcard from UPS that they were holding a package because they couldn’t find my address. (Which was on a major surface street in a major city.) When I picked it up I couldn’t get anybody at UPS to see the humor in sending me a post card because they couldn’t find my address.

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @grumpy realist: In the grand scheme of things, sure, this is a “First World problem.” But not getting the kids’ presents in time for Christmas is a major disappointment.

    1
  21. An Interested Party says:

    Republicans can’t stand the sight of a revenue stream they can’t dip into.

    Nor can they stand any government agency which actually functions properly so they do what they can to screw them up, like making DeJoy the postmaster general…

    2
  22. Mu Yixiao says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Unless you’re worried about getting medications before you run out, I gotta chalk this one up to “First World people’s problems.”

    You’d be surprised at how much industry relies on prompt delivery of packages (as opposed to freight). A delay of a couple of days on a part ripples down through the supply chain, and can cost big money to the end project. A $50 custom circuit board sitting on a shelf in Dubuque can mean that the lighting system in a $.5B NYC skyscraper can’t be completed (we deal with situations like that where I work).

    3
  23. SKI says:

    So, aside from “confusion,” the much-ballyhooed slowdown hasn’t happened.

    C’mon, James, the fact that the postal service spokespeople didn’t blame the removal of the machines doesn’t mean that their removal had no impact.

    The massive delays in Baltimore are no doubt partially caused by covid-related staffing issues outbreak but also to (a) the cancellation of an entire shift by DeJoy and (b) the removal of a mail sorter machine in the hub.

    I am acutely aware of the annual issues created this time of year (my wife is an artist and relies on USPS shipping). This year is quite different and started very, very early. Packages shipped in late November still haven’t arrived.

    2
  24. Kathy says:

    Still swamped in work and short on time, but I thought I’d mention this:

    Privatize does not mean turn a government entity into a profit-making enterprise. We tend to think it does, due to privatization of government enterprises, like Mexico’s phone company Telmex, and other such companies, notably European airlines.

    Canada has a privatized air traffic control system. It’s a non-profit company, regulated and limited to, well, controlling air traffic. It has a large degree of autonomy, but is financed by fees paid by airlines and airports, which I believe are still set by the government.

    1
  25. SKI says:

    @Kathy: By that measurement, the USPS is already privatized.

    1
  26. Kathy says:

    @SKI:

    Close.

    A private USPS wouldn’t have a CEO appointed by Trump with a mandate to screw up the election.

    1
  27. SKI says:

    @Kathy:

    A private USPS wouldn’t have a CEO appointed by Trump with a mandate to screw up the election.

    Trump didn’t appoint DeJoy. The Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service did.

    (yes, Trump picked DeJoy but the Board appointed him and the Senate approved him)

  28. Phoebe says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    R. Dave covered the retail restriction angle, but additionally both UPS and FedEx send packages through USPS (known as UPS Surepost, and FedEx SmartPost) every day that they don’t want to handle for whatever reason. Since the start of December I have seen FedEx keep a lot more of their packages in-house than normal, so at least from my perspective they’re absorbing their Christmas push. UPS has done nothing of the sort, and every day the amount of parcels they drop on us at USPS increases. I could be incorrect but I believe our agreement with both companies requires us to prioritize the packages they give us over our own customers.

    1
  29. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Amazon is not without errors. Amazon informed me yesterday that I had received a package I had not received, while also telling me I’d soon be getting a package I got two days ago.

    That happened to me once — they kept telling me that my package had been left on my porch, even though I live in an 18-story apartment building with an entrance flush to the sidewalk and 24-hour doormen who accept and sign for all packages. Every time I contacted them — well, their robot, who was all they made available — the robot would tell me to check in the bushes around my house and ask my neighbors. I was finally able to convince me that there are no bushes growing out the the Park Avenue sidewalk, that my only “neighbor” to ask was the 24-hour doorman of the building next door, and that no packages get dropped off here without being signed for.

    To their credit, once I actually reached a human being, they overnighted a replacement…

    1
  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes, but how does one privatize that which no one wants to do?

  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @R. Dave: OK, thanx. That makes sense, of a sort. Tho how that translates into my getting packages or bills via a privatized service James still needs to explain. Seriously.

  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: When did the GOP start worrying about the viability of privatization? If the market won’t provide the service, that simply means that not enough people want it.

    1