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For some in North Dakota, the mail does not come through

Staffing shortages, reforms, delivery inefficiencies to blame

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A resident enters the United States Post Office in Minot, North Dakota, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.
Michael Standaert / North Dakota News Cooperative
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BISMARCK, N.D. — Recent worker shortages and the increased workload of processing large packages have complicated the work of mail carriers who have long deftly overcome the obstacles of snow, rain, heat and the gloom of night to get mail to its destination on time.

Here in North Dakota, the outer edges of cities like Minot, Bismarck, Williston and other areas have experienced severe delays in mail deliveries recently, with citizens not seeing anything arriving in their mailboxes for days, and even weeks, at a time.

For Howard Tweeten, who lives about 4 miles north of Bismarck, the past three weeks have been a period of sporadic delivery. This has delayed bills for Tweeten, who had one come eight days after it was mailed from Bismarck, slower than if it was walked out to his home.

“It’s been kind of a hit or miss type of thing,” Tweeten said. “One neighbor was told we’ll be lucky if we get mail every other day or every third day.”

The rapid rise in the numbers of packages that mail carriers are tasked with processing and hauling, a rise stemming from the e-commerce boom in the past decade, now competes with the delivery of first class and bulk mail.

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Labor shortages, spurred by retirements and heavy competition with other employers for workers, have undercut hiring campaigns for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), further straining the system.

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A resident enters the United States Post Office in Minot, North Dakota, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.
Michael Standaert / North Dakota News Cooperative

“I talked to one person at the post office and they just keep saying they don’t have the bodies to do this, that they’re trying to hire people,” Tweeten said. “It’s really ridiculous.”

Jeff Eslinger, assistant director of the North Dakota Association of Counties, said the contract driver who delivered mail in his neighborhood north of Bismarck recently retired and the postal service has had difficulty finding a replacement.

“So now, we can go several days without service, then one day I’ll see a USPS truck delivering standard mail, and another with packages, sometimes on the same day,” he said.

In Minot, the situation has been even worse with widespread disruptions reported.

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After being inundated with complaints about delays, Minot City Council member Lisa Olson requested the city’s postmaster attend the next city council meeting on Nov. 7 to update residents about the situation. As of Oct. 28, she had not received a response.

“We don’t have authority over them, but we think it would be a good platform for them to be able to tell residents what the situation is,” Olson said during an interview at city hall.

Olson first started hearing from residents not receiving mail for three or four days at a stretch.

The situation is particularly acute for those concerned about missed prescriptions, she said.

Others have reported infrequent deliveries, especially those living near or outside city limits.

“Right now, it’s a frustration and a mystery,” Olson said.

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For Louise Stocks, a former postmaster in Grenora in the northwest corner of the state, now a resident at an assisted living center on the edge of Minot, the recent disruptions led to nearly two weeks with no mail deliveries to residents at the facility.

“When I worked there we were required to take all first class and second class mail out of the post office and deliver it every day,” Stocks said.

Rippling reforms

Cost cutting measures implemented by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy since mid-2020 that prioritized packages, deprioritized first class mail, and reduced the use of air transport to transfer mail, have rippled across the country.

New delivery standards implemented last October have slowed 40% of first-class mail deliveries, the second time in the past decade that changes in standards have led to slower paces, according to Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.

“Another thing is that the Postal Service is just delivering a lot more packages now than mail,” Steidler said. “Packages take a lot longer to deliver.”

Postal workers would have typically handled mostly mail in the past, he said. Delivering packages, often with older vehicles not designed for them, means drivers make more trips back and forth to the post office.

Steidler, who studies USPS operations policies and supply chain logistics, said that this year he has heard of “weeks upon weeks of delays” from Montana to Vermont to Washington state, as well as in parts of Cleveland, Ohio and around Kansas City, Missouri.

“It’s not just a couple of days but a chronic problem for weeks upon end,” he said.

Requests to discuss the situation directly to the postmaster in Bismarck were referred to USPS’s regional communications office in Minneapolis, which declined a request for an interview.

“Local management in Bismarck, Minot, and Williston ND are aware of delivery issues and taking steps to address the concerns,” Desai Abdul-Razzaaq, spokesperson for the region, said in a written statement.

Abdul-Razzaaq passed along information about upcoming job fairs at each of the Minot, Bismarck and Williston Post Offices from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 4.

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The Bismarck Post Office's carrier annex on Airport Road in Bismarck.
Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

The office of U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, which has been following the issue, said in a written response that most of the reports of delays have been coming from Minot.

“Based on the increase in concerns recently, we have again raised these issues with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) District Office and have contacted the D.C. office as well,” the statement from his office said.

Impacts on newspapers

Besides delays in important items like bills and prescription drugs, newspapers and periodicals are also deeply impacted. Old news isn’t as valuable to readers who have come to expect a daily paper in their mailbox.

“I’m ready to cancel the newspaper because when you get the paper three or four days at one crack, the news is old at best, or actually it’s a waste of money,” Tweeten said.

That’s not anything a news publisher or editor wants to hear, but it is a situation out of their hands, and an increasingly frequent one.

“I think in April or May is when we really started seeing problems, where four or five days later people were still not receiving papers,” Maddie Davis, managing editor of the Williston Herald, said of the impacts on her paper.

Concerns over dropping circulation, which can lead to advertisers going elsewhere or lower revenues on ads, has meant hand delivering papers on occasion to readers who haven’t received one or putting a second one in the mail for those that missed a copy, Davis said.

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The post office in downtown Mandan, North Dakota, advertises that it's hiring carriers.
Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

“We’ve actually gotten quite a few drops related to that,” Davis said of the mail delays leading to canceled subscriptions.

Steidler also raised concerns about how mail delays impact newspapers.

The USPS has been delivering newspapers since the American Revolution. That service became a core part of its initial and ongoing mission during the early days of the republic, he said.

“That’s always been something big to them and it certainly helps keep the country better knit together,” Steidler said.

“That is the mission of the Postal Service, to bind the nation together,” he added.

The North Dakota News Cooperative is a new nonprofit providing in-depth coverage about North Dakota for North Dakotans. To support local journalism, make your charitable contribution at https://www.newscoopnd.org/. Comments, suggestions, tips? Email michael@newscoopnd.org.

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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