Local postal customers, like others, recently faced delivery slowdowns and wonder if the problems are now fixed
ROCHESTER — In early August, Rochester-area officials with the nonprofit Project Chacocente, which works to bring education and sanitation to a severely impoverished Nicaraguan community, noticed a problem with the mail.
The problem: A batch of donations, totaling nearly $4,000 and expected to arrive in the mail, appeared stalled somewhere, and no one was quite sure where.
In the days and weeks before, local residents and people around the country were beginning to experience postal slowdowns, with minor inconveniences — birthday cards mailed well in advance and not arriving — to far more worrisome delays, such as missing medications.
Irondequoit resident Kristin Daly was among the latter group, as medications she receives through the mail were two to three weeks late.
"I get a medicine in the mail every month," she said. "It is a medicine that if you stop taking it suddenly, and you just don’t take it one day, you can get seizures."
The postal delays, experienced nationwide, became part of the heated political landscape, with President Donald Trump suggesting that he opposed emergency pandemic funding for the Postal Service so he could stymie mail-in ballots, and his opponents on the Democratic side firing back that he was wielding presidential power to suppress voting.
Meanwhile, new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy recently maintained that the slowdowns have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, he said, he would suspend some cost-saving measures that he had implemented, which some postal union officials and workers maintained were hindering delivery.
Those policies included removing mail-sorting machines and restricting overtime.
Will it get better?
The coming weeks may show just whether the problems, whatever their magnitude, will be resolved.
In July, the delays came to light largely on social media with photos and tales of tons of mail sitting undelivered in different warehouses and facilities of the U.S. Postal Service, or USPS.
“Anything coming out of postal headquarters saying there is not going to be any overtime and there will be delays with the mail is an insult to customers and an extreme insult to workers,” Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, told the Democrat and Chronicle in July. “It doesn’t improve anything to say we’re going to delay mail because we’re not going to pay somebody to sort it or carry it.”
DeJoy has extensive financial ties to USPS competitors, a fact that has made some distrustful of his motives.
He, in turn, contends that he is trying to salvage the struggling service, which is burdened by increasing delivery competitors and the requirement that it stay current with its employee health care costs — the latter mandate being a difficult financial onus that other public services don't shoulder.
"The Postal Service is developing a business plan to ensure that we will be financially stable and able to continue to provide reliable, affordable, safe and secure delivery of mail, packages and other communications," Pat O'Brien, a post office spokesman in Buffalo, said earlier this summer. "While the overall plan is not yet finalized, it will certainly include new and creative ways for us to fulfill our mission, and we will focus immediately on efficiency and items that we can control."
Locally, some residents and organizations who rely on USPS saw the postal delays firsthand.
Project Chacocente was born about 15 years ago to help Nicaraguan families escape from life in a filthy Managua landfill. Since then, the nonprofit has helped families move to a rural Nicaraguan community for education and farming and clean water.
A Pittsford couple, Robyn and Larry Gage, has been instrumental in the nonprofit's work and its fundraising. It was with the fundraising where problems recently arose.
A member of the board of directors who lives in Massachusetts typically receives donations. But, he suffered a back injury earlier this year, and the mail was forwarded via USPS "Priority Mail" to the Gages.
That arrangement worked without a hitch until July. Then, a batch of donations of almost $4,000 left Massachusetts, and seemed to disappear.
"We have tracked that envelope online and had multiple email, phone and even in-person contacts with USPS personnel, but it has not arrived, and its whereabouts are unknown despite the fact that the progress of all Priority Mail items is supposedly trackable," Robyn Gage wrote to donors in an Aug. 3 letter.
She said she did so because donors may have been wondering why their checks had not been cashed.
"Each donor needed to be contacted again to see if they had mailed a replacement check that might be en route before we could deposit their 'lost' check," Robyn Gage said. "We operate on a fairly tight budget so we were quite stressed."
That notice calmed some worried donors, and the package finally arrived, almost a month after being mailed.
Irondequoit resident Kristin Daly confronted her own recent postal delays. Her medication always faithfully arrived in the mail, but in July that changed when the meds did not reach her on time.
"I've been doing it (through mail) for about a year with no problems," she said. "It was actually super-efficient."
She was able to track the shipment online, and found it in a Gates postal facility. "It just sat there," Daly said.
These were not controlled substances, but Daly said she has avoided going into pharmacies during the pandemic. She has counted instead on the typically reliable Postal Service.
It was more than two weeks later when the medications arrived. Daly said she was lucky because she always kept backup medications, just in case. But, she said, she recognizes that she has the ability to take that precaution.
"Not everybody can do that," she said.
Across the country, stories have been numerous about people, some with serious medical conditions, having to wait for the late arrival of medications.
Postal employees, including carriers and upper management, said that the suspension of the earlier cost-saving measures should have an impact. The employees declined to speak publicly because of their jobs.
However, there was a consistency in what they said: Already, back-ups appear to be declining.
One DeJoy policy limited late trips or extra trips by carriers — delivery routes that would typically necessitate overtime. That policy in particular triggered backlogs in mail that was stored in warehouses, the employees say.
As well, staffing has been shorter because of vacation time and some pandemic-related absences, even adding to the crunch.
The workers said that the slowdowns should be easing, but that some large urban areas may still suffer because of the magnitude of the backlogs.
DeJoy has also suspended the removal of outdoor postal boxes, which some critics thought was a politically motivated move to give fewer options for mail-in voting.
But the removal of boxes is common, since some are rarely used and add time to a carrier's day. Many of those slated for removal were already designated to disappear before DeJoy's appointment — a point the new Postmaster General made to Congress and a claim supported by postal workers and outside observers.
"As First-Class Mail volumes have declined, the USPS has been reducing the number of blue mailboxes for years," the Brookings Institution reported last week. "It currently has 140,837 of them, down from 164,099 in 2013."
One upper-management USPS worker chafed at the current interest in the USPS from Congress.
Speaking of the 2006 law mandating that USPS pre-fund its employee health care, the USPS worker said, "The most upsetting part of all of this is that the same Congress that wants to save the post office and demands change did nothing for 14 years."
Includes reporting by Rochester Democrat and Chronicle staff writer Steve Orr.