Why the U.S. Postal Service is experiencing delays

A key part of the Biden administration's plan to distribute free COVID tests depends heavily on the United States Postal Service. White House officials say that effort is going well, with tens of millions of tests now being shipped. But the U.S. Postal Service remains under intense scrutiny for its service, delivery, its finances and how its workforce is dealing with COVID. Geoff Bennett reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A key part of the Biden administration's plan to distribute free COVID tests depends heavily on the United States Postal Service.

    White House officials say that effort is going well, with tens of millions of tests now being shipped. But the U.S. Postal Service remains under intense scrutiny for its customer service and delivery, its finances, and how its work force is dealing with COVID.

    Geoff Bennett has our report.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Diana Wahl of Arlington, Virginia, says she went a full week without mail delivery last month.

  • Diana Wahl, Virginia:

    It was terribly frustrating. If I'm mailing checks, let's say, for health insurance or things like that, then I begin to wonder, are those being delivered?

  • Paul M., Georgia:

    For me, the medication is lifesaving.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Paul M. of Atlanta, who asked we not use his last name, relies on at-home delivery of his medication. In 2021, he says those deliveries through the U.S. Postal Service started taking longer to arrive.

    Then, one week in November, he says nothing showed up.

  • Paul M.:

    That package that I missed, it showed that it was delivered, showed on the U.S. Postal Service Web site. On the tracking, it showed that it was dropped off at the front office in my apartment complex. It wasn't.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    He says he missed a week's worth of doses.

  • Paul M.:

    I had to space out my medication, and actually ration, which isn't good for any medication. Ever since then, I have not received my medication through the U.S. Postal Service anymore.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    He is one of scores of people nationwide who complained to the "NewsHour" about delivery delays at USPS for everything from medication to bills and birthday cards.

    The U.S. Postal Service reported that, during this past holiday season, it delivered more than 13 billion pieces of mail and packages, with an average delivery time of less than three days. But reports of delays and frustrated customers are still piling up.

    We asked postal workers why.

    Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, says one reason is worker shortages caused by COVID.

  • Mark Dimondstein, American Postal Workers Union:

    We have between now 15,000 and 20,000 people a day who are quarantined, officially quarantined. So, that has an impact on service.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Since the start of the pandemic, the union tells the "NewsHour," nearly 200,000 of the roughly 650,000 Postal Service employees have had to quarantine at some point, with more than 90,000 positive cases.

    Kimberly Karol, president of the Iowa Postal Workers Union, says she's seen a similar COVID crunch.

    Kimberly Karol, President of the Iowa Postal Workers Union: We don't have enough people to process and deliver the mail, and we're working even more hours. In my area, they're actually making deliveries on Sundays in order to try to keep up with the demand.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The Postal Service says it has put in safety measures, including face mask requirements, social distancing inside facilities, and contact tracing protocols to keep workers safe.

    USPS also told the "NewsHour" that it is increasing staffing as necessary and, in most cases, it has resources to ensure on-time delivery. Beyond the pandemic, postal advocates point to a larger overhaul of the independent government agency led by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy as the main reason for the issues.

    His plan is aimed at fixing longstanding financial problems at the U.S. Postal Service.

  • Louis Dejoy, U.S. Postmaster General:

    I would suggest that we are on a death spiral.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    In early 2021, DeJoy testified before Congress and argued the agency needed dramatic reforms to avoid a financial catastrophe.

    The 10-year plan unveiled last March, among other things, opens longer first-class mail delivery windows from one to three days to five days in some cases, reduces post office hours, and raises prices for postage.

  • Louis Dejoy :

    Our dire financial trajectory, operational and network misalignment to mail trends, outdated pricing, infrastructure underinvestment, inadequate people engagement, and an insufficient growth strategy all demand immediate action.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Action that's needed, he says, to avoid $160 billion in losses over the next 10 years.

    The U.S. Postal Service declined "NewsHour"'s request for an interview with the postmaster general. Since 2007, the U.S. Postal Service has reported net losses of more than $90 billion, in large part due to a 2006 law that requires it to pre-fund employee health care and pensions.

    Another factor is the major drop in mail volume, which drives profits. Over the last 20 years, the Postal Service says first-class mail shipments have declined by half. To address this, one part of the 10-year plan shifts emphasis toward shipping packages, which is more profitable.

    Veteran Postal Service employees, like Kimberly Karol, say they understand the financial challenges, but are wary of DeJoy's plan and the impact on customers.

  • Kimberly Karol:

    We're seeing the impact of the change in service standards, the raising of prices and the changing in our networks. Our customers are not getting the deliveries that they are expecting in the time frame that they are expecting, and they're frustrated because they're paying more for the product.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Changes made to postal delivery under DeJoy, who is a major donor to former President Trump, sparked outrage in 2020, when critics blamed him for service slowdowns ahead of the November election.

    Democrats accused DeJoy of attempting to sabotage the delivery of mail ballots, linking him to the former president's anti-mail-in voting rhetoric. DeJoy denied those allegations. Democrats are now at odds over how to handle DeJoy, who can only be dismissed by the Postal Service Board of Governors.

    I asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about this recently.

    What's the White House position on the persistent delivery delays that the Postal Service seems to be experiencing, at least anecdotally, and DeJoy's current place as postmaster general?

  • Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary:

    Going back to the holidays, 97 percent or 98 percent of packages from the Postal Service were delivered on time. So, there may be anecdotes from that 1 percent or 2 percent, but those are — that's actual data.

    We have expressed concerns in the past about DeLay's leadership — DeLay — sorry, DeJoy — that was a little slip there — DeJoy's leadership in the past. That has not changed.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The Biden administration is relying on the Postal Service as a critical partner in its COVID-19 strategy, tasking it with delivering rapid COVID tests to any American who wants one, deliveries that started ahead of schedule.

  • President Joe Biden:

    We're making one billion, one billion at-home tests available for you to order and be delivered to your home for free.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Mark Dimondstein of the Postal Union says this underscores the value of the Postal Service.

  • Mark Dimondstein:

    What's happened in the pandemic and what's happening with this test kit project, again, just fundamentally shows to the people of the country how important it is to have a public entity.

    There's no private entity that could get a test kit to everybody's home, because a private entity is going to move packages based on whether they can make a profit. Postal Service is a service, here for everybody.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    With a mission, he says, not to make a profit, but to serve the American people.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Geoff Bennett in Washington.

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