The Christmas decorations were beginning to come down, the gifts long unwrapped and Thanksgiving dinner a distant memory when mail carrier Mike Shoop put Kohl’s department store’s Black Friday ads in the mailboxes on his route.
“Dec. 28 I was casing these, and it was clearly marked on the pieces that they should have been in homes Nov. 19, 21 or 22,” he said.
According to area residents, businesses and postal workers, delays of this sort have become common in recent months, and Shoop and other postal workers say they know why.
The November closure of the Frederick, Md., Mail Processing and Distribution Facility, which resulted in mail to and from 217- ZIP codes being sent to Baltimore to be sorted, has been an “utter disaster,” overwhelming the Baltimore plant and leading to mail delays of, in some cases, more than a month, said Richard Shelley, who works at the Baltimore Processing and Distribution Facility and serves as director of organization for American Postal Workers Union 181.
Shoop, a Hagerstown resident, worked at the Frederick processing center until it closed, then found a job as a carrier in another 217- ZIP code community. He spoke to The Herald-Mail about his concerns in a phone interview on a day off.
A spokeswoman for the Postal Service’s Baltimore district acknowledged there were “some issues” during the transition, but said the Baltimore sorting facility has worked through those issues and has seen complaints decrease.
But members of Save America’s Postal Service — an organization of postal workers and concerned citizens — say the issue is far from resolved.
Today, the group is holding a press conference and protest to launch a campaign to reopen the Frederick mail-sorting facility. Later this week, the group is holding two public meetings, including one Thursday at the Williamsport Volunteer Fire Department.
The issue is important not only for those who depend on reliable mail delivery to and from the 217- area ZIP codes, but as evidence of what could happen across the country if the U.S. Postal Service is allowed to proceed with plans to close at least 223 more processing facilities, organizers say.
The proposed processing facility closures, estimated to save $2.1 billion a year, are part of a larger Postal Service plan to reduce costs by $20 billion by 2015, according to a Postal Service fact sheet.
“The Postal Service is in the midst of a financial crisis due to the combined effects of the economic recession, increased use of electronic communications, and an obligation to prefund retiree health benefits,” the fact sheet says.
The Postal Service does not receive taxpayer funding.
In response to its “new reality,” the Postal Service has proposed changes including lower service standards for first-class mail delivery times, closing and consolidating post offices and sorting facilities, and possibly even eliminating Saturday delivery.
The Brownsville and Big Pool post offices in Washington County were among the thousands of mostly rural post offices proposed for closure.
For now, many of those plans are on hold while Congress debates how best to address the issues facing the Postal Service. In December, the Postal Service agreed to impose a moratorium on closing post offices and processing facilities until May 15.
In a Feb. 14 letter to the Senate panel that oversees the Postal Service, 27 U.S. senators, including Maryland’s Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, said they had “serious concerns” about the Post Office’s proposed changes.
That letter calls for a solution in which the Postal Service would be allowed to recover more than $10 billion in overpayments it has made to its pension plans and would no longer be required to prefund 75 years worth of future retiree health benefits over a 10-year period.
Those payments have been cited by Postal Service officials and save-the-postal-service groups alike as a major source of the financial troubles driving cuts to service.
“The Postal Service is paying for health care costs that have yet to be incurred,” a Postal Service fact sheet says. “These funds are set aside to pay for future health care needs for employees who are not even retirement eligible. It is an unreasonable financial burden given everything that is happening in the mailing industry.”
Meanwhile, tensions are heating up over the effects of the Frederick processing center closure, which happened before the December moratorium.
In a February letter to the Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service, Shelley and five other employees described chaotic conditions at the Baltimore plant that they said led to safety hazards and mail delays.
In response, on Feb. 22, the Inspector General’s Office began an audit of operating conditions at the Baltimore center, with a report expected by June 29, OIG spokeswoman Agapi Doulaveris said.
The employees’ letter describes trailers full of mail that sat in the yard of the Baltimore center for 10 days or more, including “Black Friday ads that were still on trailers in the yard of the Baltimore P&DC at least until December 13, 2011.”
Before the Frederick consolidation, Shelley said, “mail was never allowed to sit on any vehicle, ever.”
The letter goes on to describe that contractor vehicles were “parked outside the facility, on public roadways, some with trailer doors open and carrying first class mail, because it was impossible for inbound vehicles to enter the yard or be unloaded due to the congestion and scores of vehicles waiting to be unloaded.”
Mail was backing up inside the building, too, Shelley said.
“There was no floor space, hardly, to walk,” he said.
The letter describes mail being sorted and distributed in walkways “because there is no other space in which to conduct the operations,” blocking fire exits and paths through the building.
“Managers of some stations in the Baltimore District were ordered to their stations on a Sunday in December to clear space, including the moving of cases, so that mail could be sent to the stations for storage,” the letter says. “This mail was subsequently retrieved after December 25th, 2011.”
Asked about the workers’ claims, Postal Service spokeswoman Yvette Singh said, “Those are old issues, already addressed. We’re not having those issues now.”
Singh said about half of the trailers the workers were referring to were empty, while the others had standard mail, such as bulk advertising, in them. It is untrue that mail was delayed because it sat on trailers, Singh said.
“We were still within our processing guidelines,” she said.
In regards to late delivery of mail, Singh said, “We did have some issues. You’re going to have issues when you’re making a transition such as that. However, we worked through those issues we had.”
George Maffett, Postal Service communications manager for the capital metro area, which includes Maryland, said the issues arose during the transition of Frederick mail to the Baltimore facility, which coincided with a heaver-than-usual holiday mailing season.
“As you can imagine, we had to move machinery, we had to move employees, and there were some challenges getting up to speed. We addressed those issues, and we’re glad to say we are back to providing solid service for our Frederick and Baltimore customers.”
Even with the addition of the Frederick mail, the Baltimore center is still processing less mail than it did before 2006, when mail volume began to decline, Maffett said.
Plant employees said conditions have improved since the Christmas rush.
“It has improved mostly because the mail volume is very low right now,” Shelley said. “Mail is cyclical. Christmas is a big peak, then you have a valley, and whatever the next sale season is, it will come back up.”
When that happens, employees fear the chaos in Baltimore will resume.
“It was so congested, it was not safe,” mail handler Sylvia Wigfield said in a phone interview.
Wigfield, a Jefferson, Md., resident who worked at the Frederick processing center before being transferred to Baltimore during the consolidation, stressed that the conditions are the result of the situation, not the fault of the center’s employees.
“Everybody is working very hard — very, very hard — to get it where it needs to be,” she said. “There aren’t any slackers — there aren’t many slackers — at the post office, especially in Baltimore. The mail is moving as fast as they can move it. It’s just not very efficient because of congestion.”
Nevertheless, Wigfield said, it is clear the consolidation has hurt customers.
“We did not leave mail behind, ever, in Frederick,” she said. “First-class mail that came in went out. If it got there before 5 a.m., it was going to be delivered that day; there was no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
John Munson, a retired postmaster and former Washington County commissioner, is among those taking note of the slowed service.
Munson said as postmaster, he often tested delivery times by mailing a letter to himself. Before his retirement in 1996, the letters nearly always were returned the day after he mailed them. Recently, he has repeated the same tests, and it now takes two to three days, he said.
In a test by The Herald-Mail in January, a letter mailed at the Hagerstown main post office at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday was delivered in Hagerstown two days later on Friday.
Under postal service standards, such same-area, first-class mailings should be delivered in one to two days, but the only service with guaranteed delivery times is express mail, Singh said.
Many of the more dramatic reports of delayed mail concern bulk mailings.
St. James Brethren Church used to pay bulk mail rates to send a monthly newsletter to about 300 parishioners, but after the processing center consolidation noticed the newsletters were being delivered a month and a half after they were mailed, said Sara Moore, the church’s director of Christian education.
The church has stopped using bulk mail and now relies on a combination of email and first-class mail to distribute the newsletter, Moore said.
AMVETS Post 10 in Hagerstown had a similar experience with its newsletter, commander Larrie Welsh said.
That organization has no plans to change its mailing method, he said.
“We’re a nonprofit organization,” he said. “We have to watch our funds. It’s nothing major; they get the bulletin a little late.”
For businesses, the consequences are more serious.
Julie Maynard, publisher of the Brunswick Citizen and Valley Citizen weekly newspapers, said the closure of the Frederick sorting facility has forced her papers to go to press a day earlier.
“As a newspaper, we hate being that one day less timely,” she said, but it beats the alternative subscribers experienced when the consolidation first happened.
“People weren’t getting papers in time for the ads for entertainment or events or yard sales to be effective for them,” she said.
Leroy Strawsburg, owner of Brunswick Hardware, said his business mailed a flier Dec. 3 for a Christmas sale.
“The local post office called me on the 26th of December and said, ‘We got your fliers. What should we do with them?’” Strawsburg said.
“I had an idea what to tell them,” he said. “But it wasn’t their fault.”
The undelivered ads hurt his business in December considerably, Strawsburg said. In the future, he is considering having the fliers mailed to the store, then taking them to the local post office to be delivered.
Strawsburg said he has also had problems with checks he has mailed on the store’s accounts payable, which have taken two or three weeks to get to their destinations.
“They got upset,” he said. “They thought I hadn’t paid it.”
Singh said the problems with business customers stemmed from how the mail was prepared.
“We did have some customer complaints initially, and we have been doing follow-up with our consumer affairs department,” she said. “The complaints they are receiving now, they have definitely decreased from when the consolidation initially took place.”
Anyone who experiences problems with their mail delivery should go to their local post office and speak to the postmaster, or call 1-800-ASK-USPS, Singh and Maffett said.
If you go
What: Town Hall public meeting by Save America’s Postal Service
When: Thursday, March 15, 7 to 9 p.m.
Where: Williamsport Volunteer Fire Department, 2 Brandy Drive, Williamsport