- Matt Mignanelli
As the holiday season approaches, Vermont post offices are struggling with staff shortages that customers blame for gaps in mail delivery, unscheduled post office closures and long waits at crowded counters.
For months, Vermonters have taken to Front Porch Forum to find the owners of misdelivered packages that they've received or their own missing mail. Those who have long-standing relationships with their letter carriers rely on them, or on counter staff, for explanations of what's going on behind the scenes.
"The postmaster is out on leave, one of the carriers is out for six weeks due to a hernia operation; often, there is only one person at the counter, even with a line out the door!" Stowe resident Bari Dreissigacker wrote in response to questions about mail service that Seven Days sent some of its readers on November 13.
"These employees are OVER-WORKED," Dreissigacker said.
The December holiday season is the U.S. Postal Service's busiest, and the post office problems are compounding, with no clear solutions in sight. The service is short 100 workers in Vermont, a regional spokesperson said last month. As a result, according to one northern Vermont postal worker, remaining employees are forced to work 12-hour shifts and six-day weeks.
"When you work somebody this many hours, it's very difficult to retain them. People just can't take it," the worker said in an interview, asking not to be identified because the agency prohibits employees from talking to the media. "In Williston, you have upper management delivering the mail because there is no one else to do it."
The problems in Vermont are happening all around the country, according to the American Postal Workers Union. For Vermonters, a functional post office is about more than convenience; they value the once-proud institution they've relied on for decades, the one that promises that neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stay its couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
Vermont's postal problems vary widely from town to town and even within its cities. A majority of more than 300 people who responded to emailed questions from Seven Days said their service had gotten worse in the last five years. But others said, in emails and interviews, that their service remains reliable, and they went out of their way to praise their mail carriers.
"Our delivery person is nothing short of heroic," John Koier of Underhill said in an interview. "If we have a package of some kind, she often comes up the driveway and leaves it on our doorstep."
"The mail has always been great," said Margaret Butterfield of Williston. After noticing that post office staff looked "frazzled," she said, she recently asked a clerk what was going on.
"He opened up about everything," she said. "He said, 'We're overworked; we're trying to do a good job, but we just don't have the people.' They better up the pay."
The post office in East Dorset is only open for two fractions of the day — from 8 to 10 a.m. and then again from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m. Dale Coykendall, a local illustrator who sends out a multitude of packages year-round for her Etsy store, said mail delivery is fine, but the limited hours create long queues.
"It's such stupid hours. Our teeny little post office is so busy," said Coykendall, who prints her own shipping labels at home. "If I wasn't able to create my own postage online, I would have killed myself a few years ago."
Doug Cardin recently followed along online as a package sent to him from Kentucky made stops in Pittsburgh, Denver, Chicago and Springfield, Mass., before ending up at his Burlington condo. He thinks that the problems are probably related to COVID-19 and staff shortages.
"It's what is affecting every other business, too," Cardin said. "I'm not pointing fingers."
Those who are pointing fingers single out Louis DeJoy, a donor to former president Donald Trump, who was appointed postmaster general in May 2020, around the time the nation's mail delivery problems became noticeably more vexing.
"I think they want people to get so upset with the Postal Service that it's easy to privatize it," Koier said. Under DeJoy's leadership, the post office removed hundreds of high-speed mail-sorting machines last year.
"With him immediately getting rid of a lot of the automated machines, it's pretty transparently political, to hamper mail-in ballots," Koier said. It would be very difficult for President Joe Biden to fire DeJoy; he serves at the pleasure of the nine-member Postal Service Board of Governors. But in November, Biden did nominate two board candidates to replace a pair of members who are DeJoy allies.
The Postal Service was in trouble long before DeJoy arrived. The agency has lost $87 billion over the past 14 fiscal years, including $9.2 billion in 2020. Since 2009, it has been on the U.S. Government Accountability Office's High Risk List, which said: "USPS cannot fund its current level of services and financial obligations from its revenues."
The acceleration of online ordering has created extra burdens for the Postal Service, which added Sundays to handle the packages Amazon subcontracts it to deliver.
"Sometimes we go in the post office and almost can't see the employees because there are so many Amazon boxes in there," said Barbie Koier, John Koier's wife.
Vermont's mail delivery woes are about on par with those in the rest of the Northeast, said Steve Doherty, a regional communications specialist for the Postal Service in Boston.
Asked about the reports of days without mail delivery, Doherty said he hadn't heard details and advised that the best way for customers to get information about missing deliveries is to call the national customer service center at 800-275-8777.
"We have staff there around the clock that can document the case, or whatever might be, and follow through to their satisfaction," Doherty said. But a reporter's calls to that number about a missed delivery led to an automated message directing callers to submit a service request online.
Peter Duquette did just that after a package failed to arrive at his home in Barre Town.
"It says 'Someone will get in touch with you,' but no, nobody gets in touch," Duquette said. Three weeks later, he said, the Postal Service sent an email asking whether the problem had been resolved. "They totally ignored me, and then they want to know if they did a good job."
Kathy Callaghan said she and her neighbors recently went without any mail for four days. Her calls to the Montpelier Post Office rang for a while and then disconnected; her emails and calls to national customer service earned automated responses.
"This is clearly a management failure and not at all the fault of the mail carriers," said Callaghan, a retired state benefits manager. It's the lack of clear communication that irks her. "Don't let your phone ring off the hook 20 times and disconnect; just put on a voicemail message: 'We're having delivery problems.'"
On November 10, DeJoy updated the Postal Service Board of Governors on his Delivering for America plan, a manifesto he released in the spring outlining how he wants to modernize the service.
DeJoy said the agency was in a "self-declared crisis" when he took over, with a $152 billion deficit and a 42 percent drop in mail volume over the last 10 years. The organization has 650,000 employees. "We had not met our delivery standard in the past 10 years, and there was no intention to do so," he said at the meeting.
Last year, the government agency received a $10 billion loan from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. To save money, DeJoy slowed delivery times for first-class mail and shortened some post office hours, changes that went into effect on October 1, 2021.
Doherty, the regional postal spokesperson, said the pay of postal workers starts at $18.51 an hour for city carriers and $19.06 an hour for rural ones; Doherty didn't know the reason for the difference. Rural carriers often use their own vehicles and typically don't have to wear uniforms.
In August, the Postal Service raised prices for regular, first-class mail by 6.8 percent and for packages by nearly 9 percent, prompting complaints from the attorneys general of many states. Ultimately, DeJoy has said, he wants the agency to deliver mail to every address six days a week and make the Postal Service a self-sustaining organization.
Since 2006, the Postal Service has been required to maintain a $72 billion fund to pay for employees' postretirement health care costs 75 years into the future. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been working since 2011 to lift the mandate, which his office said costs the Postal Service about $5.5 billion each year. He also cosponsored a bill that would create Postal Service-based banking, making financial services more accessible to low-income and rural residents.
Meanwhile, the service is showing the system-wide strain. Last winter, the Marshfield Post Office sported a hand-lettered sign notifying patrons that the office was closed for lack of staff.
Dreissigacker said she and her neighbors recently went without any mail for three days. She described piles of boxes in and outside of her local post office.
"This small community is not set up for this," she said. "I feel badly for the people who are working there."
Despite the growing use of online bill paying and correspondence, the U.S. public mailed 52 billion pieces of first-class mail last year, according to the Postal Service.
"A lot of us still send letters," said Lisa von Kann, a retired librarian in Barnet. "The fact that you can put a letter outside your door for 50 cents and it arrives in my girlfriend's rural mailbox in the middle of Wisconsin just amazes me."
She added that her rural carrier gets out of his car to put packages on her porch, instead of leaving them at the mercy of the elements.
"I am a huge fan," von Kann said. "The USPS is a first-rate use of my taxes, and I appreciate all the folks who make it work so well so very much."
Maureen McElaney said she goes out of her way to spend her money with the Postal Service instead of other shipping companies because she believes it's a public service that needs to be preserved. But she was frustrated recently when transactions at the Colchester Post Office were limited to cash or checks. A clerk told her the internet had been down for 11 days, McElaney said.
She admires and likes the mail carriers she has encountered and said she doesn't hold them responsible when her mail is late or missing.
"They are overworked, reliable, trustworthy good people who are just dealing with a really bad system," she said.