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Delays in USPS letters and packages for the holidays

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
On-time deliveries are down. The USPS says it's because of the COVID pandemic and high mail volume.

The U.S. Postal Service predicts this week will be the busiest time of the season for mailing, shipping and delivery. It’s also turning out to be a season of delays. Some people are tracing their problems back to Allen Park, Michigan.

That Detroit suburb is home to the U.S Postal Service Detroit Network Distribution Center. That facility serves not just Detroit, but a chunk of southeast Michigan and the Toledo, Ohio area.

Jen Britt is a paramedic in Adrian. She says she mailed some medicine to her son who lives in Alaska two months ago, but it’s still in Michigan.

“The Adrian post office has been wonderful and they keep apologizing, I'm like, well, you don't need to apologize to me, this isn't your fault. But all they can tell me is that it's sat now in Allen Park since October seventh,” she said.

Neither she or the Adrian post office understands exactly why.

“It got sent to Allen Park, and for whatever reason, after two weeks in Allen Park, Allen Park sent it back to the post office that it was originally mailed from, which is in Adrian and Adrian ended up sending it back to Allen Park. And it has been sitting in Allen Park ever since,” she explained.

UPS and other commercial delivery services use the U.S. Postal Service for the final step –what’s figuratively called the “last mile”- in delivering packages for online retailers. Too often the expected delivery date comes and goes - and there’s nothing the retailer or the customer can do about it.

Gary Truitt says he bought a truck in Kentucky on September 5. The dealership there received the license plate from Michigan’s Secretary of State on November 28. Truitt says the dealership put it in the mail to him the same day. He’s still waiting for it. Meanwhile, his temporary plate has expired.

He asked his mail carrier what’s going on.

“And she told me that there are over 200 semi trucks, trailers of mail sitting in Detroit waiting to be sorted. It's probably in one of them and there's nothing she can do about it,” he said.

At the Detroit center, there certainly are a lot of trailers as well as a line of trucks waiting on the adjacent street to drop off more.

Tyler Townsend delivers mail to the facility. He says it’s always busy this time of year, but this year has its own problems.

“The mixture between this time of year and coronavirus is just it's really amplified it, so normally it slows down by now, but yeah, not quite this year,” Townsend said.

He has a regular route that includes Allen Park. So, he gets to jump to the front of the line of trucks and pull in.

“Most of these guys could probably look to be waiting all day long,” he said as he started his truck to pull around them.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service declined to be interviewed, but did send a statement. In part it says the Detroit Network Distribution Center is facing challenges due to COVID and high mail volume. It added that seasonal workers have been hired and additional employees have been sent from other operations.

The Detroit center’s performance is typically below the national average for the postal service. That got worse this year. This summer on-time rates for first class mail from Allen Park declined from 86% last year to just over 61% this year. And package delivery was significantly down as well. On-time rates improved in the third quarter of this year.  

When I talked to Richard Hernandez, he’d been sitting in the cab of his semi-truck for two-and-a-half hours. And he expected to wait some more. Hernandez says he faces the same kind of waits when he picks up a trailer.

“Both ends is just like this, though, you know, just a lot of hurry up and wait, there's not really much you can do about it,” he explained.

The union representing postal workers says it’s not just the pandemic and high mail volumes that are hurting delivery times. This summer, the head of the U.S. Postal Service ordered the removal of hundreds of mail sorting machines across the United States. Postal Service officials said the move was part of a long-term plan to decommission old machines. According to the Detroit News, eight machines were removed and scrapped in Michigan. Four of those were from the Detroit distribution center in Allen Park.

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Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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