Things are not going well at the local post office.
Montpelier residents have experienced long mail delivery delays in the six months since a regional manager directed Vermont post offices to prioritize packages over first class mail. Delays caused by this policy, part of a national attempt to cut costs, have been exacerbated by extreme staffing shortages throughout the region. In addition, there have been at least five changes in leadership at Montpelier’s post office since August 2020, and postage rates increased in July.
Delaying Mail is Part of the Plan
“Going forward your office must not scan packages AAU [arrived at unit] more than you can deliver. We need to stop mail delivery and focus on the packages. We cannot continue to fail packages. I have been saying this for some time now and we continue to fail packages,” wrote Shawn A. Blaine, the manager of Post Office Operations for Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, in a November 12, 2021, email obtained by The Bridge. The email was sent to post office management in Montpelier, Burlington, Bennington, and Williston.
“So mail can be sitting in that building for days, and upper management’s not aware of it because it hasn’t been scanned as arriving in the unit,” said Steve Lukosus, of Waltham, Mass., the National Business Agent for the American Postal Workers Union, representing New England. “They go to the extent of falsifying records so that management officials above the local office can’t track how bad the mail is being delayed,” Lukosus alleged.
Blaine would not answer questions when reached by phone on Monday. He said he did not speak to the press, and directed the reporter to Stephen Doherty, postal service spokesperson for the Northeast region.
“If packages arrive at our facility after what we consider the critical entry time (too late to be processed for that day’s delivery), the delivery scan may sometimes occur on the following business day,” Doherty said.
“All mail is important to us and is treated with the same sense of urgency,” said Doherty. “Occasionally, we will send carriers out on dedicated parcel delivery runs to keep up with the increased volumes during holidays or other periods when package volumes swell. This is a normal protocol and should not impact the delivery of letter sized mail.”
Delaying delivery of first class mail is part of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s 10-year plan and is built into the Post Office Reform Act that President Joe Biden signed in April.
According to reporting in Newsweek the plan “is to modify existing service standards for First-Class Mail Letters and Flats from a current one-to-three-day service standard within the continental United States to a one-to-five-day service standard.”
As a result, Montpelier residents have been bearing the brunt of a national postal service crisis that includes local and national staffing shortages, plus well-reported financial problems. The Bridge spoke with four different postal employees (only one of whom would speak on the record) to confirm that the local post office on State Street is operating at or around 50% of its staffing needs.
While acknowledging that staffing shortages exist, Lukosus isn’t buying it.
“That’s just an excuse,” he said. “It’s self-inflicted by themselves. The people that make the decisions have got themselves to blame. If they’re talking about staffing being an issue, vacations happen every year. They should plan for it. Our contract allows for a supplemental workforce and allows for an increase in the supplemental workforce during the holidays.”
Post Office Woes
Montpelier’s Front Porch Forum is rife with discussions about late or undelivered mail, with thread titles such as “Post Office Woes” and “Anyone Else Being Ignored by the Post Office?”
“We … have not received our mail in two weeks. Unfortunately, I receive my paychecks that way and have been waiting for over a month for one,” wrote Jordan Chatterson in a July 1 Front Porch Forum post.
“I moved within Montpelier in February and it took seven weeks to start receiving forwarded mail,” wrote Lise Ewald on July 27. “The third time I inquired [a] clerk said the postmaster is out delivering mail, we have people out sick and we have open positions …”
One local post office employee confirmed that “certain parts of town have gone days without getting any mail.” The employee spoke to a reporter over the course of three separate interviews but asked that their name not be used, so we will refer to them as “Smith.”
It’s not just Montpelier. There is a national shortage of postal workers, and a particular need in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, where the United States Postal Service has created new positions dedicated solely to recruiting and hiring, said Ashley Hamilton, the “external applicant processing coordinator” in the USPS Burlington Process and Distribution Center.
In fact, the post office is so short-staffed that “we post up to 100 jobs a day in Vermont alone on our website,” Hamilton said.
A second Montpelier postal employee, who also asked not to be named, said “I see it happening all over the country. Almost every day I see emails from other offices saying they’re down one or two carriers — they’re looking for help.”
High Turnover and Package Priority
Additionally, Smith said the Montpelier post office lost a postmaster and has hired two “officers-in-charge” in 2022. The USPS website states that Naomi S. Tilton served as officer-in-charge from August through October 2020, when Liane M. Spaulding took over in the same role until December 2021, after which Vanessa L. Roy became the postmaster for just a few months, until earlier this year. The website does not list another Montpelier postmaster or officer-in-charge after that date, although staff members state there have been two other people in the role since Roy, and one person about to be named as the newest postmaster.
Fast turnover of new recruits appears to be an issue as well, according to staff members interviewed for this article.
“When you start off new, they just burn you out real quick. People work 21, 30 days [in a row] … ” Smith said. “I’ve been there long enough, I have fixed hours. If I had started today, I wouldn’t have stayed.”
Lukosus agrees. “… if they start treating [new employees] with dignity and respect and don’t beat them down as much … and if they are supplemental [workers], hire them as a career and give them benefits, the turnover would be a lot lower,” he said. He said that the union contract requires one day off per week.
When asked about burnout among new recruits, USPS’s Hamilton said she was not aware of it.
What to Do About It?
Lise Ewald, in her Front Porch Forum post, recalled an encounter very similar to one that this reporter had while retrieving undelivered mail at the post office: “… I went to inquire (about undelivered mail) and that clerk leaned over the counter and whispered to me ‘please complain on the website.’ I think all the workers deserve our sympathy and I know that at least on my street there have been new employees learning the route.”
One of the post office employees who did not want to be named said people are welcome to come into the post office to pick up mail, but it might lengthen line waits.
“If there’s something that they know or if they have a tracking number and can actually see if they’ve arrived here, we can try to locate it for them,” the employee said. “Sometimes there’s routes in our office that haven’t had carriers for two or three days at a time and sometimes we’re going through hundreds of packages. Just this morning I went through 2,000 packages.”
For those experiencing long delivery delays, Lukosus suggests contacting the post office to request a complaint form, or find one online (usa.gov/complaint-against-government). “I would urge [residents] to contact their local city officials, and I would urge them to contact one of the best postal supporters in the country and call Bernie Sanders’ office,” he said.
Post office staff suggest interested candidates go to usps.com/careers to apply for a position. According to Hamilton, the USPS recruiter in Vermont, the lowest starting pay is $17.32 for a mail-handling assistant at the processing plant. She said a rural carrier starts at $19.50 per hour; a city carrier starts at $18.92; and a postal support clerk starts at $19.62, along with a generous benefits package.
She also said the postal service specifically recruits veterans, with 100,000 of the 600,000 national postal employees being vets.
“My son graduated from high school three years ago and didn’t know what he wanted to do. He took a mail handler job here at the plant — within six months he made career; six months after that he got on a day shift at the plant; after two years of being career, he’s making $42,000, health care, [paid time off], 5% matching [on a retirement plan], paid holidays,” Hamilton said.
“That’s my spiel,” she added. “We’re looking for younger people. I’m looking for anybody who wants to work. If these kids get in here at 18, 19 years old they’ve got a great retirement coming to them.”
“You can ask any employer, it’s difficult to find capable new employees in the current job market,” Chris Ellingsworth wrote in Front Porch Forum on July 28. “ So, I would advise patience. Appreciate the miracle of decades of daily mail service — getting a letter across the country for less than a dollar. Appreciate their hard work. Understand that it is a burden for them to carry this imperfection in their service level. Send them best wishes and prayers so that they can get their system running smoothly again.”
No Talking to Media
The frustration over delayed mail deliveries is overlayed by an aura of fear from postal employees about speaking openly to the media. For over six months The Bridge reporters have unsuccessfully tried to talk to staff members on the record.
Postal service staff may well have good reason to not speak to the press. According to Lukosus, “postal workers can get fired for releasing information that puts the postal service in a bad light.”
Following another bout of long delays between mail deliveries in some parts of town, The Bridge reached out again in July to the Montpelier post office. A reporter spoke to three employees, all of whom confirmed their identity, but spoke only on condition of anonymity, and one of whom opted not to be quoted at all.
All three indicated, but did not say outright, that they were not allowed to speak to the press. This aligns with an August 20, 2020, article in Vice (“USPS Warns Employees Not to Speak to Press”), that said “Memos are trickling down the United States Postal Service bureaucracy warning employees that they should not speak to the press and any customer asking lots of questions may be a journalist sneakily trying to get information out of them.”
The memos, while instructing employees to stay away from the media, fail to inform them of their First Amendment rights to speak to the media, Whistleblowersblog.org said in a September 14, 2020, article.
Not Just the P.O.
The post office isn’t the only local organization that can’t find workers. Shaw’s supermarket on Main Street has a semi-permanent recruiting table set up near the produce section, plus reduced deli hours and reduced numbers of cashiers that an employee told The Bridge are due to low staffing. Hunger Mountain Co-op has also curtailed its deli and hot bar hours due to lack of staff.
Customers can work around reduced hours when shopping, or wait a bit longer in line, but there doesn’t appear to be a workaround for not receiving mail.
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