SARATOGA SPRINGS — Eagerly awaiting a package in the mail? Patience please, says the United States Postal Service.
An unprecedented increase in volume combined with limited employee availability due to the impacts of COVID-19 have resulted in the current environment across the country.
“We’re still working through a great deal of volume, and like our neighbors everywhere, a tremendous impact related to COVID. When you put those factors together you do have what people are experiencing, which can be delays. And we’re working on that,” says Maureen Marion, USPS spokesperson for the Capital Region.
“In the Saratoga-Capital Region we certainly mirror the trends of the nation,” Marion says. Where volume is concerned, factors have included robust e-commerce activity during the holiday shopping season, a bump-up related to packages being returned post-holiday season, and people moving more packages in general rather than tending to needs in-store as they had done in the past, due to potential COVID concerns.
“I think people might be surprised in the volume related just to returns, which is larger (today) due to a new generation of shoppers who shop online,” Marion says, explaining that it is not uncommon for people to purchase multiple versions or sizes of products because returning items is an easily acceptable practice.
“People ordering things online because they couldn’t get things in their stores, or they wouldn’t go to the local stores. The home has become the dressing room and returns have become increasingly a bigger and bigger ticket item, particularly this time of year,” she says. Looking back to last spring, “by St. Patrick’s Day 2020 we were running at 40% more packages, easily. We were doing Christmas week volume for packages - and that’s significant because ‘package’ delivery is a little bit different tempo than ‘letter’ mail.
“Let’s drive through the mean streets of Saratoga: if I’m typically delivering mail a couple of years ago, I’m delivering to mailboxes at the end of your driveway and dropping off letters – boom, boom, boom. It’s labor intensive, but it’s quick. With the packages, I have to stop the truck, open the door, lock the door. I have to unlock the truck, get the package and re-lock the truck. Then I have to walk up the driveway, leave the package, go back to the truck, unlock my door, turn on the vehicle and go,” Marion says. “It takes a couple of minutes, but a couple of minutes times a hundred locations is two-and-a-half hours.”
COVID-19 has also had an effect on workers and policies. More than 600,000 USPS employees process, transport, and deliver mail and packages across the country. And the service reaches 160 million addresses every day, according to the American Postal Workers Union. It is a service that is vital, delivering everything from medications to Social Security checks, and it is the leading delivery service for online purchases, according to the organization.
Last spring, the USPS dedicated a COVID-19 Command Response leadership team to focus on employee and customer safety in conjunction with operational and business continuity during the pandemic. The protocols included mask-wearing, social distancing and updating cleaning policies in the workplace, expanding the use of telework for employees able to perform their jobs remotely, and maintaining steady communications regarding postal facility disruptions that may impact delivery via its USPS Service Alerts webpage. Those may be viewed at: about.usps.com/newsroom/service-alerts.
“At this juncture what you are seeing is staff impact related to COVID that takes on several different layers. We have approximately 7,800 active COVID illnesses nationwide; We have individuals who are then quarantined because of close contact in the workplace to those specific active COVID exposures, and employees who are quarantined due to exposure in their own families or other places outside of work,” Marion says.
COVID has also impacted some USPS offices both large and small, which have had to alter hours, as well as affecting processing plants and distribution centers. CDC recommendations suggest postal workers be vaccinated alongside teachers and those over the age of 75 in the Phase 1b vaccination process. It does not appear, thus far, that those recommendations have been included in N.Y. State’s 1B plans.
“In New York State this week there were 496 active COVID cases – window clerks, postmasters, people who work in the processing plants, drivers… everybody,” she says.