The U.S. Postal Service released holiday numbers showing a new record with the handling of 13.7 billion packages and letters in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, including 7 million strong in the state of Utah. But the triumph is tempered by a slump for on-time deliveries during peak weeks in December, underscoring the agency’s room for improvement despite heroic efforts by a dogged mail carrier workforce.
In order to meet the holiday rush the agency expanded Sunday services, the postal service hired a staggering 40,000 seasonal employees, and piled on hours for postal workers who could be found loading their first trucks at 5:00 a.m and delivering past dusk — trotting through rain, shine, snow and smog — in order to meet the prodigious demand for home deliveries in a world increasingly reliant on online retail.
The high package volumes and associated revenues are a shot in the arm for a self-funded federal agency that’s wobbled from billions in losses since 2007 as private companies made inroads on the market for package delivery. The busy season will help the agency chip away at its current 188 billion unfunded liabilities, including outstanding retirement, operational debt and the perennial expense of mass employee onboarding in an industry notorious for turnover.
Each of Utah’s 7 million letters and packages delivered over the holiday season passed through the hands of a Certified Carrier Assistant, whose sunup to sundown efforts are a point of pride for the service.
“The (mail carrier) position is demanding. It requires a lot of attention to detail. It’s very customer facing. These guys stay really busy,” said John Hyatt, a public affairs officer with USPS. “There is a lot our carriers do, but that’s why it’s a rewarding position.”
Carriers report enjoying the position’s social elements and outdoor work environment. However, there are also carriers who say the position makes work-life balance a challenge and that the level of mental and physical exertion is difficult to sustain across multiple seasons, as revealed in carrier comments attached to the report “The churn and heart burn of employee turnover” from the Office of the Inspector General.
That is, at least, for the 21% of USPS “non-career employees” who do not receive standard benefits, including a guaranteed set schedule, one of the reasons the agency has faced endemic levels of non-career employee turnover, according to reports from the USPS Office of the Inspector General, which sees annual departures as high as 45%. The top three reasons cited by departing non-career USPS workers are “inflexible schedules, physical demands, and dislike of supervisors,” a phenomenon that costs the agency millions in additional training and onboarding expenses annually.
Despite churn, the postal service was able to fill positions with a slew of new hires who were instrumental to the record-setting season of packages — although, their lack of institutional experience may be showing up in other metrics. Consumer package appetites steadily outpace carriers, causing the service to fall short of some of its own key targets and take fire for failing to deliver mail promptly, with only 64% of its first class mail delivered on time during peak weeks in December. The truancy stemmed in part from surges of coronavirus, which bedeviled logistics by taking swaths of its workforce out of commission.
‘Delivering for America’
In an attempt to address its retention and performance problems, as well as get it’s financial house in order, the postmaster general’s office has responded with the “Delivering for America” plan, a recently published strategic blueprint that promises to restore the agency to its former glory through a series of investments and revamps. The plan calls for 10 billion to be spent over the next 10 years to modernize parcel processing, update logistics technology and delivery operations while optimizing routes, along with the modernization of its delivery trucks to a non-emitting electric fleet.
In the Wasatch Front, where vehicles are responsible for up to 50% of the pollution amid a demographic for whom air quality consistently ranks as a top concern, the transition from gasoline to electric vehicles is a point of excitement. However, some worry the conversion plan lacks ambition because it calls for only 10% of its 220,000 gas-powered delivery vehicles to be electrified. In order to electrify the entire fleet, the postmaster general’s office says additional funding is needed from the congress, but no commitments have been made.
Beyond air quality, there is the issue of waste. Some are beginning to show concern over the growing environmental impact of commercial packaging industries, and the carrier services who enable them, with the revelation that commercial packaging now accounts for 30% of the solid garbage generated in the U.S. annually. The cardboard itself requires 1 billion trees, according to reporting from Forbes.
The agency in recent years has emphasized sustainability practices, with integrated re-use and recycling practices while phasing in renewable energy, including its anticipated implementation of hydrogen fuel cell technology in warehouse operations.
“We recycle a lot of paper and cardboard. Our employees also do local bottle recycling. We now have a Los Angeles processing plant completely covered in solar panels and it’s one of the largest of its kind for that level of operation. (USPS) is working hard to create sustainability,” John Hyatt said.