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What’s going on with the USPS this holiday season?

Don’t count on timely Christmas deliveries this year.

A USPS worker walks down the street with rolling parcel bags, wearing a mask.
USPS workers are struggling to keep up with need. They are working longer hours that are taking them away from time with their families. 
Noam Galai/Getty Images
Melinda Fakuade is an associate editor for Vox, working mainly with The Goods and the Culture team. She is from New York and her writing has focused on culture, entertainment, and consumerism.

The United States Postal Service has been no match for the current chaos of shipping delays, which threaten the on-time delivery of Christmas gifts for many Americans. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more people are shopping online this year: On Cyber Monday, for example, shoppers spent $10.8 billion, according to Adobe Analytics, setting a record for the largest US online shopping day in history. Amazon urged customers to order gifts in advance this year, fearing an overload of orders would affect their delivery capabilities. That’s borne out in long lines, untrackable packages, and delayed mail across the country.

This build-up has been a long time coming: With the focus earlier in the year on mail-in ballots, resources were largely devoted to the presidential election, leaving other postal issues overlooked. As Adam Clark Estes previously reported for Recode, this year has been a rocky one for the USPS as a whole. The postal system has been in serious trouble for a while now — a push toward privatization by President Donald Trump, coupled with cost-cutting from Postmaster Louis DeJoy, who was appointed in May, has put the USPS at serious risk this year. While the Postal Service is required to run new policies by the Postal Regulatory Commission, DeJoy failed to do so, resulting in over 7 percent of first-class mail being delayed within the first five weeks of the changes.

It’s not just a matter of underfunding or understaffing. While the Postal Service hires local seasonal workers on an as-needed basis, this holiday season has been especially brutal. Debra Isser, a 66-year-old carrier who has been with the USPS for 10 years, says that at her location in Reisterstown, Maryland, there is some seasonal help, but it isn’t always enough.

“We do have a number of other clerks that have come in to help out. But on the carrier side, I haven’t seen anything. On the city side, no extra help, and no extra help on the rural side either,” she said. “I would say the big problem with the postal office is, quite honestly, they don’t pay their workers enough money to retain them. They have a big problem with turnover.” As of 2019, the Postal Service has a 38.5 percent turnover rate. Isser says she feels the issue stems from low wages. According to Glassdoor, the average USPS mail carrier makes around $27,113 a year.

“When I started, they paid a lot more than they pay now,” Isser said. “They work you so hard. They push you, push you, push you, push you, trying to get as much out of you as they can. And then they don’t give you anything.” While the Postal Service now offers health care, Isser says it did not when she began years ago.

The Washington Post reported that private carriers like UPS and FedEx have stopped taking deliveries from some retailers. This has resulted in the overflow going to the USPS, with even more pileup for the Postal Service and more delays for customers. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that some facilities still have packages from before Thanksgiving to deal with, and that in some especially hectic locations, “there is barely enough room to walk.” According to the American Postal Workers Union, 19,000 workers have called in sick or are isolating themselves due to Covid-19. But the Postal Service is also currently receiving around 6 million packages a day. Per the Post, parcel volume as of December 12 is up 14 percent. Delivery workers are struggling to keep up with need and are working longer hours that are taking them away from time with their families.

Isser says she has not personally seen the kind of backlog that has been reported in the past few weeks. While the volume of packages has not been much higher than in previous years, she is seeing delays in delivery times. “I am seeing huge delays. I delivered one parcel today that was a priority parcel. It was estimated delivery on December the 10th and I delivered it today. It’s the 17th. I’ve never seen that before here,” she said.

Dave Walker III, a 29-year-old photographer and influencer in Alabama, says the delays are interfering with his livelihood. Before December, things had been fine, but now he is noticing significant delivery delays on his packages. Part of his day-to-day work includes promoting clothing brands on social media, and if he can’t get the products in a timely manner, it affects his ability to meet his deadlines.

“It’s affecting me, because the quicker I can get it done, the quicker I can get paid,” he says. Walker is currently waiting on several packages and has no idea when they will arrive. “My package is more than a week past the date that they had that it would have been delivered,” he said. While his clients have been notified of the potential delays, it’s still a toss-up when he’ll be able to work. “That’s probably the most frustrating thing — there’s no expected date, they just said, ‘Bear with us, we’re experiencing delays.’”

In a statement via email to Vox, a representative for the Postal Service said that “a historic record of holiday volume compounded by a temporary employee shortage due to the COVID-19 surge, and capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail are leading to temporary delays.” There’s not much anyone can do except continue to wait for the delays to let up. The USPS ground shipping deadline has already passed as of December 15, and those hoping to squeeze in a last-minute holiday package will have to rely on priority express service, which cuts off on December 23 and excludes Alaska and Hawaii, but delivery in time for Christmas is still not guaranteed.

For those waiting for packages, hang tight, and please be kind to your postal workers. For those who still have to send something out, run, don’t walk — but you’re probably too late to pull off delivery by Christmas. Either way, the Postal Service needs our understanding, especially after such a tough year. Everything about 2020 has been different — we might as well get excited at the idea of presents trickling in with the new year.