PROVINCETOWN — Mail service on the Outer Cape has been plagued by delays in the past month, many customers report. Sources both inside and outside the post office say the delays are the cumulative result of loss of staff and systemic problems in the U.S. Postal Service.
Multiple postal customers in Provincetown told of significant delays in mail service over several weeks in July. David Maril, who lives in the East End and runs the Herman Maril Foundation from his home, said that he went four days without a delivery at one point.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in Provincetown,” Maril said, adding that several of his neighbors described similar lapses in their service when he asked them about it.
Scott Pomfret, who lives in the West End, said the mail has been “sporadic and comes in bunches.” In early July, Pomfret did not receive mail for at least six days, he wrote in an email to the Independent.
According to a Provincetown Post Office employee who asked not to be named because postal workers have been warned not to speak to reporters, the delays were caused by a temporary shortage of mail carriers. There are four carrier routes in Provincetown, and typically five carriers. But for several weeks in July, this worker said, the post office was operating with three carriers — and, for one day, just two — to cover all of the routes.
“Look around at all the people in Provincetown and imagine two people delivering the mail,” the worker said. “It’s impossible.”
Jane Corbin, who retired from the post office after 31 years and now works at the Surfside Inn in Provincetown, confirmed that she had heard the same explanation from a contact inside the Provincetown Post Office. When carriers are unable to work, others have to pick up the slack, both Corbin and the anonymous worker said.
The Independent contacted the postmasters at all seven Outer Cape post offices (in Provincetown, North Truro, Truro, Wellfleet, South Wellfleet, North Eastham, and Eastham) to ask about staff shortages and delivery delays. All seven said they were unable to speak to the press. Several said that was a longstanding rule in the Postal Service.
But according to Stephen Doherty, the manager of communications for the Postal Service’s northeast region in Boston, postmasters are not forbidden to talk to the press. Rather, he said, it’s just that “they don’t have to.”
Two memos distributed to postal workers in August 2020 instructed them not to answer questions from journalists. The memos, which were obtained by the website vice.com, said that postal workers should “avoid the temptation to ‘answer a few questions,’ ” and instructed employees to refer reporters to regional representatives like Doherty.
The delivery problems in Provincetown occurred because one carrier was injured and another had a family emergency, Corbin said. These setbacks appear to have happened in a setting where capacity is already strained.
According to the unnamed worker, the job is hard even when the post office is fully staffed. For one thing, Provincetown, like many rural places, relies on the post office for “last-mile” delivery of privately shipped packages (like those from Amazon).
That means that Provincetown postal workers are responsible for delivering an added 1,500 to 2,000 packages per day, according to the anonymous worker. During the pandemic, there was a boom in Amazon deliveries — the company reported a 44-percent increase in items sold in the first quarter of 2021.
Doherty said that staff shortages are widespread throughout the Postal Service. Retaining workers is challenging because of the inherent difficulties of the job, he said. Workers have to undergo extensive training and pass drug and driving tests.
Corbin said that mail carriers often work 12-hour days and have to work holidays. Consistent with the Postal Service’s famous creed — “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” — postal workers have to walk miles daily in all weather.
“It’s hot. It’s humid,” Corbin said. “You’re exhausted” in the summer.
According to Doherty, post offices in Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, and Orleans all have staff openings. When there are shortages, he wrote in an email to the Independent, the Postal Service is “typically able to flex our resources and move people to where the need is to ensure that all of our Outer Cape customers receive the First Class level of service they’ve come to know and deserve.” And, he added, they are currently carrying on an “aggressive hiring campaign.”
Local post offices here are not immune to the effects of the housing crisis. At the Provincetown Post Office, the anonymous employee said, there’s high turnover, partly because workers have trouble finding affordable housing. The employee described almost having to quit because of the difficult housing market. This person reported having to spend 60 to 70 percent of monthly income on rent now. With rents on the rise, the problem has only gotten worse.
“This is a perfect example of what happens when a town becomes overpriced and unaffordable for the very people who work for it,” the source said.
The Postal Service has experienced widespread mail delays this year, with 78 percent of first-class mail parcels arriving on time in the first quarter of 2021, compared with 92 percent in the same period last year. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy unveiled a 10-year overhaul plan for the Postal Service in March that would slow down mail across the country.
Despite the problems in the Postal Service, it remains popular with the public. According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of those polled held favorable views of the USPS in 2018, 90 percent in 2019, and 91 percent in 2020.
News reports of beleaguered postal workers may have helped. Following the winter holidays, National Public Radio reported on record-breaking late deliveries, but also on the overload on staff.
On Monday, communications manager Doherty was busy trying to calm furious residents of Kennebunkport, Maine, where mail delivery problems provoked a blistering attack by Selectman Mike Weston, reported in the Portland Press Herald.
“No mail delivery for a week,” wrote Weston. “Maybe no mail next week. The excuse — one person on medical leave and one on vacation. No provisions now for coverage. Local postmaster called district management and asked for help and told we were on our own. This is the chaos that the postmaster general has foisted on customers.”
The Independent conducted surveys of customers at the Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham main post offices to gauge if the problems in Provincetown were unusual. The results varied: in Truro (where mail is not delivered and is placed in P.O. boxes), nearly 40 percent of respondents reported recent problems; in Eastham, 33 percent. In Wellfleet, however, just one respondent of 14 said that new issues had arisen in the past one to two months.