VASHON ISLAND — Jan Staehli didn’t sign up to deliver mail. She stays busy enough managing the Vashon Country Store and Farm.
But the U.S. Postal Service has been so understaffed and overwhelmed on the island recently that Staehli can’t count on regular deliveries for the route that includes her store, which manages mailboxes for about 150 residents. During the holiday season, she said, unsorted piles of packages were stuck behind Vashon’s post office, sitting on pallets in the rain.
So Staehli and her employees now make daily car trips down a stretch of highway to the post office, where they knock on the back door and load up their trunks. They bring the mail back to the store to sort themselves.
“We’ve become the de facto post office,” the store manager said with a sigh last month. “We’re not set up for this.”
The Postal Service’s staffing challenges are particularly acute on Vashon, which is hard to commute to and where housing is scarce. “USPS brings in off-island workers to help deliver mail” read a November headline in the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber, which has covered the situation extensively. Even the Vashon Island School District has had trouble getting its mail.
But similar problems are affecting communities across the Puget Sound region, from Wallingford in Seattle to Maple Valley in the suburbs, with the Postal Service hoping to fill as many as 1,000 jobs in Washington in the coming months. The crunch is forcing exhausted mail carriers to work deep into the night and leaving some customers waiting for important deliveries, like prescription medications, pricey packages and Social Security checks.
“Due to continued staffing issues, there may be individual days when a neighborhood may not receive mail,” Postal Service spokesperson Kimberly Frum wrote in an email, declining requests for an interview with the agency. “But we will rotate employees and assignments, and that mail is prioritized for delivery the following day.”
Though the Postal Service is trying to boost hiring and though Congress passed a law last year that could help, union representatives say inadequate wages and grueling hours are causing recruits to burn out and walk away, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Carriers make $19 to $23 an hour to start.
It’s a nationwide crisis, exacerbated by the Seattle area’s high cost of living — for an agency that’s attracted more scrutiny since major Republican Party donor Louis DeJoy was appointed postmaster general in 2020.
“It really is bad,” said Kevin Gottlieb, president at Branch 79 of the National Association of Letter Carriers union, which represents workers in Seattle and in suburbs ranging from Mill Creek up north to Auburn down south. “I’ve been with the post office going on 35 years and I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Few people understand the Postal Service’s staffing challenges as well as Virgilio Goze, a union steward at the Wallingford post office who delivers to the growing North Seattle neighborhood’s bungalows, apartment buildings and small businesses. He lives the crisis every day, trudging more than 7 miles (that’s 16,000 steps) to visit as many as 895 distinct addresses.
Hired as a carrier in 2016, Goze, 30, watched a wave of baby boomer colleagues retire after the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in Seattle, he said.
“They all ran for the hills,” and replacing them has been difficult, Goze said, because the Postal Service’s wages and working conditions aren’t as attractive as they were decades ago, when post office jobs with solid government benefits were coveted as a reliable route to middle-class stability.
As 2021 began, Branch 79 had 1,764 members, Gottlieb said. By the end of 2022, that number had dropped by more than 200, to 1,547. There are also shortages of clerks, mail sorters and truck drivers, said David Yao, vice president at the American Postal Workers Union’s Greater Seattle local.
Meanwhile, with more people doing business remotely and shopping online, the number of packages moving through the system has surged. The Postal Service handles much less envelope mail than in the past, but packages are more time-consuming to handle than letters, and carriers must deliver to more addresses every year, as more homes and businesses are built.
For example, when a low-slung store on Stone Way North in Wallingford is replaced by a large apartment building, “one delivery becomes hundreds,” Goze said.
The changes have put pressure on the carriers who remain and who are working mandatory overtime to keep the mail moving. Wallingford’s post office, like many others in the region and beyond, has lacked enough carriers to cover every route, Goze said, especially when vacations and sick days come into play. Goze has been working 55 to 72 hours a week for years now, plus union activities, he said.
“We have 48 routes and only 47 carriers,” and some routes take longer than eight hours to complete because they haven’t been adjusted since 2012 to account for new development, Goze said last month. “On my days off, I’m so tired I just sleep … I don’t have a life outside the Postal Service.”
The carriers make higher, overtime wages when they work more than eight hours a day, but some post offices are violating the union’s contract by instructing them to work more than 12 hours a day or 60 hours a week and by sending managers out to make deliveries, Gottlieb said.
Though the union files complaints about the contract violations, called grievances, post offices like Wallingford’s are so desperate to get the mail out that they’re paying extra money to settle the grievances and are treating the settlements like an inevitable, routine expense, Goze said.
The Postal Service spent more than $80 million on overtime-related grievances in fiscal year 2021, up from less than $40 million in fiscal year 2015, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general’s office last year.
“By law we are obligated to deliver every item sent through the mail. We are working hard to meet the needs of our communities across the state,” said Frum, the Postal Service spokesperson, adding, “This means our current staff will often work overtime to meet those obligations.”
The system hasn’t quite broken down. Nationally, the Postal Service reported it delivered about 90% of its first-class mail on time from October through December. But the pain points are real, with grievances and injury claims costing big bucks and with excess hours placing workers at risk, the union representatives say. Tired carriers working in the dark, they say, are more likely to get in car crashes, get robbed and get mistaken by homeowners as intruders.
“There are carriers out there late,” Gottlieb said. “They’re coming in at 6 in the morning. They’re working until midnight, busting their butts.”
The staffing woes are affecting customers, too.
Wallingford resident Allison Jansen became aware there were problems more than a year ago, when she began to receive her mail after 7 p.m. and as late as 9:45 p.m. The situation deteriorated in mid-December, when snow and ice collided with the Postal Service’s annual holiday rush. Jansen, who gets her medical prescriptions in the mail, alongside cards, letters and packages, went an entire week without receiving any mail at all, she said.
When a neighbor visited the post office to inquire, “everybody was asking where their mail was” and a stressed worker “suggested that people could apply for [Postal Service] jobs if they wanted to speed things up,” Jansen said.
A similar experience rattled Fremont resident Patricia Halsell, who phoned the Wallingford post office in December to ask about her mail.
“I spoke to a really nice man who said they’d lost their carrier for my neighborhood,” Halsell recalled. “I said, ‘Can I come into the station and pick up my mail in person?’ And he said, ‘That won’t work because our counter people are inundated. They would have to take a half-hour to go in the back and rummage around, and that would take them away from the counter.’”
The chaos motivated some residents to picket the Wallingford post office with signs last month, attracting coverage from KIRO-TV. Since then, the Postal Service has sent extra carriers to Wallingford from other stations, Goze said.
Halsell, an artist who sells paintings through the mail, contacted City Councilmember Dan Strauss and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Part of her didn’t want to “make a stink,” because other issues, like homelessness, are more pressing. But there’s something symbolic about the mail that makes the situation distressing, Halsell said. Most Americans assume they can count on the Postal Service operating smoothly, as much as anything the government does. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” reads the iconic phrase engraved on a New York City post office.
Following years of political turmoil and a devastating pandemic, “This is kind of like the psychological last straw,” Halsell said. “Now we don’t even have the post office to rely on? My God, our country really is falling apart.”
Washington’s congresspeople have heard from constituents about the problems. Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, and Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, wrote to DeJoy last July to complain about mail delays in Whatcom, Snohomish and Island counties. They wrote to him again last month.
“While brief delays due to weather and the busy holiday period are understandable, many constituents reported no mail delivery for over a week,” with some describing “missed paychecks, medication, court notices and other important items,” DelBene and Larsen wrote.
Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish, has also been in touch with the Postal Service, she said, citing complaints about insufficient staffing and mail delays in Maple Valley and Covington. In a meeting last month, officials told Schrier the situation would improve soon. But she isn’t sure what to believe.
“We do have staffing shortages” in locations like Vashon and Maple Valley, “and we’ve been aggressively hiring in those locations to help bring consistency to our service,” said Frum, with the Postal Service, which is holding job fairs and sending “now hiring” postcards in the mail.
“When a customer doesn’t get daily mail service, we understand their frustration,” she added. “We need to get back to reliable, daily mail service.”
Schrier, Larsen and DelBene voted last year for the Postal Service Reform Act, which Congress approved with bipartisan support. It says the agency must keep delivering mail six days a week and says the agency no longer needs to prepay workers’ retirement health benefits. Allowing retirees to enroll in Medicare instead won’t solve all of the Postal Service’s money issues but could save the agency tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.
Schrier said the law should “take some of the financial pressure off” and allow the Postal Service to boost wages, to help improve hiring and retention.
With negotiations for a new National Association of Letter Carriers contract set to start in March, “We’re in a much better bargaining position” now to seek pay increases, Goze said. The Postal Service has already begun hiring more Seattle recruits into part-time “career” carrier jobs that pay $23 an hour, versus assistant carrier jobs that pay $19, he noted. Higher pay is the obvious solution, agreed Yao, the union rep for clerks and sorters.
“We’re competing with the QFC down the street,” Goze said. “They’re hiring at the same wages, but the workload that’s expected is completely different.”
Yet wage increases could have a lesser impact here, relatively speaking. The carriers union has previously negotiated and will likely continue to seek a national contract that pays workers the same rates everywhere, rather than paying them more in expensive areas like Seattle, Goze said. Locality wages could irk workers in cheap areas and complicate bargaining, critics say.
National news has concentrated on DeJoy, who was appointed during Donald Trump’s presidency and whose plan to overhaul the Postal Service with cost-cutting measures sparked controversy ahead of mail-in voting for the 2020 election. DeJoy can only be replaced by the Postal Service’s governing board, whose members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Tom Johnson, a Sammamish resident who experienced mail delays in December, is worried about the politics at play, he said. “While I consider myself a political independent, it is not hard to see how the current state of the USPS is consistent with the Republican agenda” to suppress voting and reduce government services, Johnson wrote in an email last month.
But Yao said actions at the local level matter, too, considering that the Seattle area’s affordable housing problems are making it tougher to survive and thrive as a Postal Service worker. That reality is apparent on increasingly upscale Vashon, where rentals are almost impossible to find, Staehli said.
The Vashon post office last month had nine routes and only three regular carriers, with the vacant routes being handled by temporary workers who were commuting to the island, the Beachcomber reported.
“We’re almost like a resort town now, where they have to build housing for the workers,” Staehli said. “We’re going to have to do something.”
Residents are talking about what to do, with the Vashon-Maury Community Council hosting multiple discussions. Ideas include making more purchases locally to take pressure off Vashon’s carriers (the Postal Service delivers for Amazon on the island), installing larger mailboxes and better signs to ease deliveries on rural roads, and asking the Washington State Ferries to provide free rides to and from Vashon for postal workers. The King County Council may change zoning on the island to allow more apartments.
“Vashon Island has been especially challenging” as a place to hire new Postal Service workers, “given the lack of local, affordable housing options and a limited pool of applicants,” said Frum, the Postal Service spokesperson.
The Postal Service held a hiring fair on Vashon on Jan. 27. But until structural changes occur, problems may persist on the island, said resident Amy Sassara, waiting in a long line at the Vashon post office last month.
“The gentleman at the counter now is the only person who’s been there for the past month,” Sassara said. “You can’t manufacture new employees.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.