Millions Of Christmas Gifts May Arrive Late Due To Overload At The Postal Service

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Like many of his colleagues, Postal worker Rickey Ramirez is working overtime to keep up with the crush of Christmas deliveries. Many packages are likely to be delivered after Dec. 25.

Tovia Smith/NPR

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Tovia Smith/NPR

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Five-year-old Grant and Brooke Dell Orto, 8, and their mom, Elizabeth Pruitt, are still hoping all their Christmas presents get delivered in time to put beneath their tree by Christmas morning.

Andrew Dell Orto /Courtesy of Elizabeth Pruitt

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Andrew Dell Orto /Courtesy of Elizabeth Pruitt

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«That’s where the anxiety comes in, because she’s talked about rationing this medication by taking it every other day instead of every day, but it is essential,» Vacca says. Her Christmas gifts are late too, but she says, «Those are not a matter of life and death.»

It’s nerve-wracking, says her mother Carole Vacca. «Not only do you have to worry about this virus going around, but then you’ve got to worry about your medications being in limbo.»

The Postal Service declined to speak to NPR for this report, but in an email says the agency’s «entire Operations team, from collections, to processing to delivery, is working around the clock to address the historic volume.»

This year’s load is estimated to be 40% over normal, with some days spiking much higher.

Even the 50,000 extra temporary workers hired this season, and vast amounts of overtime aren’t enough to keep up.

«It’s a tsunami,» says Scott Hoffman, president of the American Postal Workers Union, Boston Metro Area Local President. «We’re going to do the best we can, but there’s no stopping a tsunami.»

To make matters worse, just as post offices need all hands on deck, some 19,000 workers are either out sick with COVID-19, or in quarantine, according to the postal workers’ union.

«We continue to see high rates of absenteeism in hot spots around the country,» said Postmaster General Louis Dejoy in a video to employees last week. «This has impact on local and national service performance, and it adds stress throughout the workforce.»

The Postal Service has been scrambling to divert packages around the most hard-hit and understaffed areas, sometimes confounding customers who are tracking their packages online and watching them going in the wrong direction. But Hoffman says that’s often a better option than standing still.

«I mean, I hate to say it, but it’s like a giant sewer system,» he says. «Everything has to keep flowing. If it’s not flowing then it’s backing up. And then how are you going to dig out?»

Compounding the Postal Service’s problems, is the extra burden of having to pick up the slack for private carriers, for example, when UPS stopped taking certain packages.

«The private carriers got overwhelmed and had a safety valve, which is to tell customers to ‘get lost,’ » says Mark Diamondstein, resident of the American Postal Workers Union. «The Postal Service does not have that safety valve. The post office will never say ‘no.'»

In fact, by law, the USPS is not allowed to do that kind of «cherry picking» as Congressman Gerry Connolly D-VA calls it. A member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Connolly says the postal service’s challenges have also been exacerbated by chronic underfunding and cost-cutting initiatives implemented by Postmaster General Louis Dejoy over the summer.

«The postal service is still paying a price for the disastrous reorganizations imposed on it by a postmaster general who was hired essentially to disrupt the ability of the postal service to deliver ballots in November,» Connolly says.

Others dispute the notion.

«I don’t think you can blame any service outages now on those decisions last summer,» says Michael Plunkett, president and CEO of the Association of Postal Commerce, a trade group for commercial mailers. He blames the holiday rush for «crashing» the Postal Service, and «causing cascading impacts throughout various networks. I’m observing a level of frustration that I’ve never seen before.»

Steve Hutkins, a retired NYU- Gallitan English professor who runs a postal Service advocacy website called, is hardly a fan of Postmaster General Dejoy. But if the impact of his summer cost-cutting measures are «murky,» Hutkins says, «Dejoy knew this [holiday rush] was coming, and it’s ultimately his responsibility to make sure the postal service runs right, and now it’s a big mess. The buck stops with him.»

Back around the Christmas tree, at her home in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Pruit is still holding out hope for a surprise delivery to come in under the wire. But as the chances dwindle, and she and the kids are making peace with the growing likelihood that their gifts aren’t going to make it by Christmas.

«I’m just trying to keep it all in perspective, and be grateful that we can spend the day together, and we’re healthy,» she says. «It is what it is. And [the children] have to learn that sometimes things don’t always play out as planned.»

Indeed, it seems to be the recurring lesson of 2020.

  • postal workers
  • USPS
  • holiday season
  • Christmas

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