Lack of workers said to be causing Post Office back-ups

— Sean Mulkerrin
Postal Service employment has dropped by nearly a quarter since the turn of the millenium.

ALTAMONT — The complaints come in every form: on social media, to the local congressional office, in letters to the Enterprise editor, and under the breath of a disgruntled customer but loud to be enough to be heard by a reporter exiting the Altamont Post Office in the course of reporting this story — residents just aren’t receiving their mail. 

The answer as to why it’s taking so long for some to receive their mail is the same whether it’s the official line from United States Postal Service, a local postal employee answering complaints directly on Facebook, Congressman Paul Tonko, or anyone who follows the news: There just aren’t enough workers to get the job done. 

Mark Lawrence, a USPS spokesman, in response to an Enterprise request for an interview about local delivery issues (local postmasters are not authorized to speak on such matters, The Enterprise was told by one) sent a statement, which said in part: 

“We are experiencing challenges with employee availability in some locations causing occasional impacts to mail deliveries ….”

The Postal Service has “taken specific actions to continue service to our valued customers,” he said, including:

— Continuing to fully authorize overtime to allow employees to work the time necessary to deliver mail;

— Expanding mail deliveries to earlier in the morning, later in the evening, and on Sundays to ensure customers receive mail at the earliest date possible;

— Use of additional carriers from nearby offices, when necessary, to maintain mail deliveries; and

— Hiring additional personnel.

“We appreciate our customers’ patience and understanding and want to assure customers that we will continue to adjust routes as needed to improve service,” Lawrence wrote.

According to the Congressional Research Service, “The total number of USPS employees declined about 20 percent between fiscal year 2007 and fiscal year 2020, from about 786,000 to 644,000 employees.”

As of the end of August, the number of workers employed by the postal service was approximately 631,000 — which is a figure that’s been right in line with the postal service’s annual employment, give or take 20,000 workers, for the past 10 years

In the Albany-Schenectady-Troy Metropolitan Statistical Area — consisting of Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, and Schoharie counties — there were 2,400 postmasters, mail superintendents, service clerks, carriers, sorters, processors, and machine operators in 2021, according to the the Bureau of Labor Statistics; that’s up 50 from the previous year and up 160 from 2019. Ten years ago, there were 2,080 employed by the Postal Service, according to the bureau.

Bill Clark is president of Branch 358 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, headquartered in Schenectady. Clark represents city carriers; however, Altamont is represented by a rural carriers’ union, he noted. 

Clark said, without getting into specific locations in the region, the observation about workers is correct: There just aren’t enough of them.

With employment at the post office being viewed generally as a good job — offering health benefits and a retirement package, for example — Clark was asked why the USPS is having difficulty filling positions. 

“Well, there’s a lot of speculation about it,” Clark said, “but I don’t believe that the Postal Service” has been immune to the general worker shortage that has affected nearly every industry in the Capital Region.

But there’s an additional problem for the Postal Service, Clark said, “we’re not competitive with” a certain segment of employers in part because the Postal Service is “a physical job, and there’s only a certain portion of the labor pool who has ever been interested in doing physical labor.”


The initial slowdown

Delivery slowdowns at post offices across the country went into effect in October of last year. 

The move was part of the agency’s roll-out of a 10-year strategic plan “aimed at addressing numerous issues USPS states it is facing,” according to a September 2021 Government Accountability Office report to Congress. 

Prior to October 2021, it should have taken no more than three days for a piece of first-class mail to be delivered anywhere in the country; after Oct. 1, 2021, it was to take take the same piece of first-class mail between two and five days to be delivered, The Washington Post reported at the time. 

Under the old standard, mail being delivered from 280 miles or fewer should have arrived at its destination within two days, while anything beyond that threshold typically reached where it was going within three days. 

Under the new standard:

— Mail traveling 140 miles or fewer will typically be delivered within two days;

— Letters delivered between 140 and 930 miles from their destination arrive in three days; 

— Mail takes four days to travel between 930 and 1,907 miles; and

— Anything traveling over the approximate distance between the Altamont Free Library and Pie Town, New Mexico takes five days.

What changed was the way the Postal Service is moving the mail. 

Approximately 20 percent of mail used to be moved by plane but, under the new plan, more of those letters are being driven. About 12 percent of first-class mail is now transported by air, according to The Post. 

In May, packages were added to the slowed-down schedule that first-class mail has been on for nearly a year. 



Congressman Paul Tonko said his office has been hearing from constituents in the Altamont and the Hilltowns about delivery delays, but also from constituents Troy, Albany, and Amsterdam, and generally from residents across the 20th Congressional District. 

But Tonko said he thought the Postal Service Reform Act of 2022, which President Joe Biden signed into law in April, “really gives the Postal Service the resources so that they’re able to be on much more solid financial footing, and it also advances transparency and accountability.”

The 2022 Postal Service Reform Act undid what was seen as the most onerous part of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which required the Postal Service to prefund some 50 years of retiree health benefits.

 Tonko said the Postal Service’s need to pre-fund retirement benefits was crippling the agency. With the new act, the Postal Service will be brought into line with other government agencies, Tonko said, paying retirement benefits into the system on an annual basis.

Starting in fiscal year 2007, the Postal Service began to operate at a loss, and has ever since — almost entirely due to the additional legacy retirement costs. 

The 2022 Postal Service Reform Act drops the pre-fund mandate and requires retired postal employees to enroll in Medicare when they are eligible, in effect shifting the health-care burden to another pot of taxpayer money — but its estimated the moves will save the USPS nearly $50 billion over the next 10 years. 

Tonko said the bill also maintains a six-day delivery schedule as well as more frequent reporting on service performance.

“To me,” Tonko said of the Postal Service Reform Act of 2022, “it set the tone and gave [the Postal Service] the resources to get things done.”

Tonko said he’d been “suspect” of the changes Postmaster General Louis DeJoy had implemented at the post office, and in March 2021 he laid out his concerns in a letter to DeJoy. 

DeJoy was appointed under Republican Donald Trump’s administration; both Biden and Tonko are Democrats.

For example, Tonko said a number of operations at the New Karner Road facility had been merged — his letter said six mail-processing plants in New York had closed, but didn’t say where or when. Hundreds  of post offices across the country have been closed or merged since 2012 — while the amount of equipment has been reduced. 

In its April 2021 response, the USPS stated the machinery it pulled had been outdated and, “given the mail volume at the Albany facility,” whose first-class mail volume had dropped by 46 percent since 2007, “there was available capacity on other equipment to handle the volume.”

While first-class mail volume has dropped, there has been a significant increase in package volume. Total USPS package volume more than doubled between 2008 and 2020, from 3.3 billion to 7.3 billion — a number that has only increased since the onset of the pandemic.

“To me, I think a lot of these moves have set up the USPS for failure, along with the letter carriers,” Tonko said. “And it’s demoralizing, and it’s unacceptable.”

He said Congress has sent the resources needed to maintain the integrity of the Postal Service, an institution he notes that has been around for nearly 250 years.

When Clark’s point about there just not being enough workers available to do the job was brought up to Tonko, he pivoted back to the success of the Postal Service Reform Act, laid any potential negatives at DeJoy’s feet, and said “We’re going to keep fighting to get the answers and the actions that we believe the consumers and the constituents require.”

Noting that the delivery issue was one of manpower at the local level, not holding DeJoy accountable in Washington, The Enterprise asked Tonko what he can do at the local level to help; he responded, “The leadership serves at the pleasure of the board.”

Tonko was referring to the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service, which oversees the activities of the Postal Service, and of the postmaster general, who oversees its day-to-day operations.

“And I say we’re going to keep harassing until we get a response that shows great accountability and transparency,” Tonko said, “that shows sensitivity to the consumers to whom they respond, our constituents, to whom they respond.”

He continued, “We want this to be a state-of-the-art operation with technology and the like, and you don’t merge a number of stations and then reduce the amount of technology, the amount of equipment. Those are one of the concerns we had expressed to them and we just get pushback.”

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