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USPS Overwhelmed By Record Number Of Holiday Deliveries

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Christmas is only two days away, but the packages you sent or expected to receive may not arrive in time to open them under the tree or next to your stocking. The United States Postal Service (USPS) says its 644,000 employees are doing their best, but more Americans ordered packages online this year, leading to record volume. And, of course, the pandemic has complicated the entire process. Joining me with an update is Hannah Denham. She's business reporter for the Washington Post. So, Hannah, what are the expectations right now, considering the challenges the USPS is facing?

HANNAH DENHAM: What we've reported is that millions of Christmas presents may arrive late because of postal service delays, because — but it's much more complicated than that. We're seeing an unprecedented package volume that's paralyzing the agency and leading managers are having to divert vast shipments of mail across the country. So the agency is dealing with several things here. There're spiking coronavirus cases in its workforce, unprecedented volumes of e-commerce orders this year and a continuing fallout from the cost-cutting program earlier this summer that threatened the election at this point. So we're seeing several issues that are all compounding right now.

GOLDSTEIN: Is there anything that the USPS can do, that it's trying to do, to make up for, I mean, all those things that you mentioned?

DENHAM: Right. So the Postal Service has hired about 75,000 additional seasonal workers to make up for the workers that are, that are not showing up to work because they are sick. They've expanded their transportation options. They're delivering on Sundays to more rural areas. But what they're dealing with is, what FedEx and UPS has said to retailers. They've given them a cutoff date on orders and packages past a certain point. The USPS can't do that because they're a public program. And so they're having to accept all of the UPS and FedEx additional packages, as well as its own stream of, of packages and mail. So that's why we're seeing such, this onslaught of backlog of delays.

GOLDSTEIN: How does Amazon fit into this? I'm not sure about the relationship Amazon has with the USPS. Is there some sort of overlap there as well?

DENHAM: So Amazon and several other companies use the USPS for its last-mile shipping. So that means that last bit of, of the journey for your Amazon package is on a USPS truck and it's delivered to your house. And so Amazon orders are, that go through the stream are also experiencing delays. They're all sort of swept into this broader, this broader backlog and the stream of delays that we're seeing here.

GOLDSTEIN: Hannah, have we seen, as we mentioned, with the the worry leading up to November's election, there was concern about all sorts of different things, whether it be delivered on time. Medicine, of course, was even a topic that was brought up. Have you been able to figure out at this point as far as USPS on-time delivery, has that sunk to new lows? Has that been fairly steady?

DENHAM: Right on time delivery for the USPS has definitely sunk. It's more in the high 80s percentage-wise, according to the data that we found. What we've previously reported, what my colleague Jake Bogage investigated is that the, the postal workers who report this on-time delivery data, sometimes they're, they're, they're cushioning the data because they don't want to get in trouble for, for, for the timing, the late timing of these deliveries. So even that data is not truly painting an accurate picture of what's happening here. But we do know that for the Postal Service, it's in the high 80s percentage-wise of on time performance. So that's dipped in the last couple of months.

GOLDSTEIN: On its own, has the USPS been open about letting people know, "Hey, you know, we know you want this by Christmas, but you may not?" Or is that up to, to, frankly, journalists to reveal this?

DENHAM: Well, the Postal Service has definitely been clear on its website — starting, you know, Dec. 15, allow 10 days, they're saying, to customers and businesses, allow 10 days, at least, for your packages if you want them to arrive by Christmas Day. And then up to saying, you know, for priority express shipping, please order this by Dec. 23. But they're also saying no guarantees. So we're hearing reports from consumers that are saying they even ordered packages on Black Friday and earlier in November that haven't arrived yet. You know, customers that have ordered priority shipping specifically for time-sensitive products like food and other things that can decay that arrive 10 days later. And so what the Postal Service has to say is there's no guarantee and they're sort of in this position where they really can't guarantee the timing of when these packages will be delivered.

GOLDSTEIN: Expectations are, certainly we'll have a new administration starting on Jan. 20. Is this something that is expected to be, in any way, a highlight of of additional budget assistance for USPS? Is this sort of, as we see how the holiday season goes, would you anticipate that sort of sending a message that the USPS might get some more support, or is that too hard to tell at this point?

DENHAM: I think it's too hard to tell. You know, I think the Postal Service has been asking for months for more, for more funding from Washington. I think we can see it as, if this will be the tipping point for legislators to say, "OK, this is what we need to give," but I think it really will be a waiting game to see how bad it gets before funding is available.

GOLDSTEIN: Hannah Denham of The Washington Post, thank you so much and happy holidays. We appreciate the time.

DENHAM: Thank you. You too.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.