RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, JOHN REID BLACKWELL
Deborah and Charles Jones still believe in the importance of the U.S. Postal Service, even though the mail delivery agency may not entirely believe in them.
The couple have had several pieces of mail sent to their home in western Henrico County that were returned to the senders affixed with a yellow label that says their house is “vacant.”
It is most definitely not vacant, Deborah Jones said, but the yellow labels in some mail raise some troubling possibilities.
“We don’t know if there are bills that have gotten picked up and have a yellow sticker on them,” she said.
The “vacant” labels are not the only issue. Jones said her father tried to send her a piece of certified mail on Sept. 1 that took until Sept. 17 to be delivered.
“My dad was so distressed about it,” she said.
“We have had four different weird experiences with the Postal Service,” Jones said. “To us, it is not the people [postal service employees], it is the terrible system they have been left with.”
The Joneses are not the only people expressing frustrations with delivery and service problems with the U.S. mail.
“We have seen over the last year and a half an enormous number of delays in postal delivery all across Virginia and all over the country,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who blamed the problems at least partly on the “very political appointment” by former President Donald Trump of Louis DeJoy as postmaster general.
“People were not getting their mail or getting their bills paid on time,” Warner said this week in a conference call about mail issues. “People rely on the mail for their [medications] and aren’t getting them in a timely fashion.”
The problems with mail service are numerous, according to interviews with multiple people. Complaints range from mail deliveries made at night and at different times of the day to mail not being delivered at all. Others say mail is tampered with or misdelivered, or that service is spotty.
The delivery and service problems come at a time when the Postal Service is now slowing down deliveries and raising prices in an effort to cut costs and raise new revenue to fix its long-standing financial problems, worsened by the growth of online ordering and new competitors.
Some residents and politicians are concerned about potential impacts of the delivery problems on mail-in ballots for this November’s elections.
Barbara Fischi, an 81-year-old resident in independent living at Cedarfield retirement community in Henrico, said she is particularly worried about mail-in ballots. She said she requested an absentee ballot in Henrico for the June primary, but after waiting 14 days, she had to call and request another ballot.
“The first ballot arrived a week later, and the second ballot arrived in 10 days after my second request,” she said. “Some residents at Cedarfield had received ballots in a timely manner, and a number of us had not.”
Fischi said she sends cards, packages or payments two weeks in advance “in hopes that my loved ones or recipients receive my messages.”
“I am forced to use email more and more,” because of late mail deliveries, she said.
Laura Stephens, a resident of North Richmond, said she has had issues with late deliveries and missing mail, too.
“They skip delivery probably once a week, and often delivery is late,” Stephens said. “Our mailmen are delivering mail with a flashlight on their forehead at 8 or 9 at night, which is not safe.”
“I think that they are doing the best they can, but I don’t know what is causing the problem, honestly,” she said.
Stephens said she thinks the problems have become more severe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know if it has been exactly six months or a year, but it has been long enough that I have reported it on more than one occasion, and I have spoken to [Postal Service] customer service and they have told me they have shortages of mail delivery people.”
Representatives of the Postal Service did not respond to several requests for comment.
Two unions that represent postal workers, the American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers, declined comment.
Warner attributed the problems at least partly to ongoing labor shortages that have impacted the Postal Service and other businesses and institutions.
“The Postal Service, we know, is under huge financial stress,” Warner said. “It has got issues with its pension fund. It has competition from UPS and Amazon and others. Recruitment at the Postal Service is a much harder job than it used to be. The idea that the Post Office was a path to the middle class — it still is, but it is not viewed as attractively as it was maybe 30 years ago.”
“This is, in my mind, a management issue, and an issue of not hiring and retaining enough people,” Warner said.
“The issue about recruitment and retention is not just a problem at the Postal Service,” Warner said. “I don’t think I have talked to a small business — or for that matter a large business — over the last couple of months that hasn’t said they don’t need more people.”
Other government officials, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, and Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th, have heard of multiple complaints from constituents about mail service.
It was a topic of discussion, for instance, at the Hanover County Board of Supervisors meeting last month. The board that night directed County Administrator John Budesky to send a letter to federal and state representatives telling them how bad mail delivery is.
Spanberger’s office announced Friday that it is conducting a survey to gather information and feedback from residents in her congressional district about mail delivery and service delays.
A survey conducted in August 2020 received more than 800 responses from central Virginia residents with concerns about mail delays. In February 2021, as the 2020 tax filing deadline approached, another survey received more than 3,700 responses.
There are limits to what members of Congress can do, however, because the Postal Service operates as a largely independent federal agency overseen by a five-member, bipartisan Postal Regulatory Commission appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate.
The ongoing complaints about mail service come as the Postal Service is undergoing a planned 10-year “transformation” introduced by DeJoy and aimed at making the agency more financially sustainable.
The changes have included raising rates this year for letters and magazines by as much as 6.9%. The cost of a first-class stamp rose this summer from 55 cents to 58 cents.
In addition, from Oct. 3 to Dec. 26, the Postal Service is raising prices on some products through a holiday season surcharge, ranging from 30 cents more for first-class package service to $1 more for parcel return service and $5 more for priority mail, priority express mail, parcel select and retail ground services for items weighing between 21 and 70 pounds.
The plan also calls for slower delivery times in some cases and reduced hours at some post offices.
Up until Oct. 1, the Postal Service has said 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, it will take between two and five days.
Those plans have raised complaints from some state attorneys general, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who this week joined 20 other state attorneys general in submitting a formal complaint asking the Postal Regulatory Commission to order the Postal Service to request an advisory opinion on DeJoy’s 10-year plan.
Stephanie Hoy, president of Direct Mail Solutions, a Henrico-based direct mail company that sends out about 12 million to 14 million pieces of mail per week, said her company is not currently facing any delivery issues.
That may be because the company uses mail commingling, a process that helps reduce delivery times by mixing mail from different companies.
“That could change in the fourth quarter” as mail volumes increase, Hoy said.
But Bill Beville, a Richmond resident who owns rental properties in the Fan District, said his tenants are increasingly relying on dropping their rent checks off at his office because mailed checks often show up a few days late.
“Those who used to mail their personal checks … are now personally dropping them off at my home office, rather than using the U.S. Postal Service because their checks, mailed on the first of the month, were now taking five to 10 days to reach my office,” he said.
“It goes without saying that I have property expenses — mortgage, taxes, maintenance, utilities — that have deadlines on the first of each month, and late rents due to slower delivery of the U.S. mail can [be] and is a problem,” he said.
Jones, who said the Postal Service has returned mail because her house is “vacant,” received a call this week from her church that another piece of mail had been returned with a yellow sticker saying their home was vacant.
She was upset.
Jones stressed that she and her husband do not believe this was the result of mail carriers making a mistake, but of systemic problems within the Postal Service.
They have lived in their home for more than a decade. Previous mail carriers “often have bent over backwards to solve earlier problems.”
Jones, a retired Henrico school teacher, said she called a Postal Service supervisor this week who informed her that undelivered mail gets thrown in a box at the local post office and then sent to its sorting facility in eastern Henrico where the “yellow sticker’ is affixed.
“But really the question is — why does a carrier on our route get to toss our mail away on any given day?” Jones said. “There is no accountability. After talking to the supervisor, I realized that someone decided to do that … since we don’t have a regular carrier who may care about or know us.”