A chronic workforce shortage at the U.S. Postal Service has disrupted mail deliveries and burned out the thinning ranks of carriers in southern Maine just as the hectic holiday package season arrives.

The Postal Service says it is working to hire more people and that service issues and delays are common during the holiday season.

But officers of labor unions that represent letter carriers, clerks and mail handlers say the long-term staffing challenge is reaching a crisis point. They say the issues stretch back years and will not be resolved in the near future, especially without changes to a two-tiered compensation structure that offers new hires lower wages and fewer benefits than veteran workers.

“There are workplace issues everywhere. Just about every office is understaffed,” said Mark Seitz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 92, which represents about 700 workers in southern Maine. “My branch covers 31 different offices. I’d say three to four are fully staffed, but a large portion of them are extremely understaffed.”

The Saco-Biddeford office, for example, should have a full complement of 45 carriers but is down to just 31 right now, Seitz said. Even though the Postal Service has added tens of thousands of positions nationwide, it has struggled to attract new people. New carriers mostly just offset those who quit or retire, Seitz said. And background checks can take weeks or months, leaving applicants in limbo or searching for other jobs at places that will hire them right away.

With a workforce stretched to the breaking point, letter carriers regularly work extreme overtime, often clocking 60- to 80-hour, seven-day work weeks. Most offices offer a day off every two weeks, Seitz said. For workers who enjoy earning overtime, the situation works. But the prospect of years of long working days with no relief in sight is a tough sell for new recruits.

The nature of the work has changed too. In past decades, a letter carrier could expect to spend a few hours in the office sorting mail, then six hours delivering on the street, Seitz said. But with automated sorting machines and extra packages, workers now spend more than eight hours on their feet, doing heavier lifting and exposing themselves to extreme weather, increasing the likelihood of accidents.

‘VICIOUS CYCLE’

Those working conditions – plus starting pay that hovers around $19 an hour in the midst of an intensely competitive labor market – make it hard to attract hires and push people into leaving, creating a “vicious cycle” of deteriorating conditions sparking more burnout leading to harder conditions, Seitz said.

“I’ve seen more people quit in the last few years than I’ve seen combined in the last 15 years,” he said. “You have more people leaving than coming in, all that is doing is snowballing. It is an aging workforce, a retiring workforce. It is definitely not sustainable.”

John Graham sorts through mail in his mail truck before making deliveries on Ray Street in Portland on Thursday. With automated sorting machines and extra packages, letter carriers now spend more than eight hours a day on their feet, doing heavier lifting and exposing themselves to extreme weather.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

With an acute staffing crisis, disruptions to mail delivery are inevitable. The priority that management has placed on delivering parcels over first- and second-class mail makes that all the more likely, said John Graham, vice president of the mail carriers local.

Graham works a route on Ray Street in Portland. About seven years ago, he’d expect to deliver 10 to 20 packages a day, he said. Now, it is more like 120 parcels a day, and more than that during the holidays. Even though the volume of first-class mail, such as personal letters and bills, has decreased, there is now more second-class mail, such as flyers and other advertising. New housing means long routes have gotten longer, without an equal growth in staff, he said.

Despite carriers’ best efforts, the system starts to buckle.

“In the last 10 weeks, there are routes that do not get their mail delivered – but it doesn’t happen two days in a row,” Graham said. “Someone in the Greater Portland area will not get their mail today, but they will get it tomorrow. That would not have happened seven years ago.”

SERVICE SUFFERING

Mail service at Larry Hourcle’s home in Saco this year started coming later and later in the evening, then not at all. Delays meant he missed a tax filing deadline and had prescription medication sit in his mailbox overnight.

Hourcle, 75, doesn’t think the Postal Service is doing enough to fix its staffing problems. With so many jobs open and a system under such obvious strain, the advertising blitz he expects hasn’t materialized.

“Why don’t I see any ads about postal jobs with decent pay and benefits?” Hourcle said. “Why isn’t the post office doing a better job advertising the fact that they have all these vacancies?”

Local post offices routinely host job fairs to fill positions and are assisted by postal district human resources staff who run broader recruitment campaigns, Postal Service spokesperson Steve Doherty said.

The  Postal Service has been recruiting aggressively throughout the year in preparation for the busy holiday season, Doherty said. There are at least 63 open postal service jobs in Maine, he said, and new positions are added weekly. Nationwide, the service typically hires 40,000 seasonal helpers for the holiday period but also is looking for 60,000 year-round workers nationwide.

“We are using all tools at our disposal, including liberal overtime and relocating personnel and assets as needed to assure that all our Maine customers receive the kind of first-class service they’ve come to expect and deserve,” Doherty said.

Between July and September, about 93 percent of two-day mail, and roughly 76 percent of three- to five-day mail, arrived on time in northern New England, according to Postal Service performance reports. During the same period, 88 percent of packages were delivered on time.

“Holiday volumes are always challenging for any delivery company, which is why some customers may see their mail or packages delivered earlier or later in the day,” Doherty said.

TIERED SYSTEM AN ISSUE

The two-tiered employment system at the Postal Service is a major stumbling block to recruiting new, long-term employees, labor unions contend.

In the last 10 years, the Postal Service has reduced labor costs by making nearly all new hires “non-career” positions. Starting wages for non-career workers are less than their “career” colleagues and they do not receive the same suite of benefits. Health insurance is more expensive for non-career workers and they are ineligible for the Postal Service’s generous retirement plan unless they reach career status, usually by filling a job opened when a career worker leaves.

Reforming that system to bring in new hires at the career level could help address staffing shortages, said Scott Adams, president of American Postal Workers Union Local 458, which represents mail clerks, maintenance workers and others in southern Maine.

Starting pay for a non-career worker is $18.69, compared to $22 an hour at the bottom rung of the career wage scale. With so many other open jobs paying at or near the non-career wage, the Postal Service is at a disadvantage, Adams said.

“People come in for $18.69 and hour and not know their future? I think a lot of people say, ‘I can get that at the mall,'” Adams said.

The non-career turnover rate in the Postal Service in fiscal year 2019 was 38.5 percent, higher than the 34.8 percent goal set in the services’ national performance assessment, according to a report from the Postal Service Office of Inspector General. In that year, the non-career employees who left stayed on the job an average of 81 days, the inspector general found.

Injury rates are higher among non-career workers, too. An August 2021 Government Accountability Office report found non-career workers had injury rates 16-22 percent higher than their career colleagues.

A 10-year plan adopted by the Postal Service this year aims to reduce turnover by half and create a more predictable pathway into the career workforce.

The two-tiered system leads to more turnover, burnout and low morale, said Scott Surette, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Branch 122 in southern Maine.

“That has been an issue. Some of these people are overworked and non-career and see no light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of them quit,” Surette said. “It is all about timing. Sometimes there is a rush of retirement and some careers open and they can convert people to career workers. That can take three months or three years.”


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