‘It’s a mess when you don’t get your mail’: Waiting on, worrying about the Postal Service in Philly

A random sampling of folks in West Philadelphia revealed frustration with delivery delays and apprehension about mail-in voting in November.

Pharmacist Steven Nguyen works at Davis Pharmacy on Baltimore Ave. He’s been calling the US Postal Service’s line for days trying to track down customer packages (Hannah Chinn/WHYY)

Pharmacist Steven Nguyen works at Davis Pharmacy on Baltimore Ave. He’s been calling the US Postal Service’s line for days trying to track down customer packages (Hannah Chinn/WHYY)

Pharmacist Steven Nguyen has been calling the post office for weeks. His order, meant to be delivered Aug. 4, still hasn’t shown up.

Nguyen works at Davis Pharmacy on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. In the past month or so, he said, he’s had dozens of packages delayed. When he or his customers show up at the post office, they wait in line for hours.

When he calls, the stated wait time is over an hour, and he still can’t get through to anyone. He dialed once, as an example, punching in options to talk to a representative about the Aug. 4 package and putting the phone on speaker, so a reporter could hear.

“Please stay on the line while your call is transferred to the operator,” an automated voice said. The line rang continuously as a colleague greeted a customer at the pharmacy counter, received a UPS delivery, and handled another customer’s purchase. Then the call disconnected.

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“No good,” Nguyen said, shaking his head. “See that?”

Nguyen was one of a random group of people in West Philadelphia who spoke to WHYY Tuesday about mail delivery. Those people expressed worry, frustration, and suspicion about the U.S. Postal Service’s delays — and residents across the region are voicing similar concerns.

Outside the 40th Street post office on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Shakairah Arthur said she isn’t concerned about mail delivery — yet. She lives and works in University City, where trash, mail, and other service delays have been minor, she said. What she is concerned about? Voting this fall.

Arthur and her brother both requested mail-in ballots for the primary election in June, but never received them; they had to go vote in person. “Trump is making it very hard for the USPS to be funded, and that’s on purpose, from what I can see. [I think] he literally wants to stop people from voting in the mail … minimize as many people from voting as possible, make it very hard for people to get their vote in.”

West Philadelphian Lee Dunsmore had the same thought.

“Some of the cutting back of funds, and the staff that’s now being cut back, and the delays — it just seems like the wrong time to be doing such a thing. Any rational person might think that this is suspicious,” Dunsmore said. “And you hear that it’s a Trump mega-donor who’s in charge, that feels suspicious as well … the repercussions of the election are too great. It just seems that efforts should be made to keep this in check. If they’re going to cut the budget, then they should wait until after the election.”

His partner is voting by mail, Dunsmore said. But he’s planning to vote in person in November. He’s worried that, otherwise, his vote might not be counted.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that he would suspend several controversial U.S. Postal Service changes — including changing retail hours, closing mail processing facilities and decommissioning mail processing equipment, removing collection boxes, and limiting postal workers’ overtime — until after the November presidential election.

Sitting on the steps of his sister’s house in West Philly, Ronald Hodge said he was concerned about international mail —  he hasn’t gotten a package from China, and it’s been four months. But he hasn’t had trouble with domestic “regular” mail, he said. He’s planning to vote in person, too, just because that’s what he’s always done.

Ronald Hodge has been waiting on an international package from China for four months now. He says he doesn’t order anything online anymore — just goes to the store — but “once this virus passes, things will get better.” (Hannah Chinn/WHYY News)

Hellen Hall, a longtime Philadelphian, was coming out of the 50th Street post office with an envelope of stamps. She was less concerned about the election than she is about things like bills.

“Bills — see, you’re getting the bill when it’s already due. Or you’re getting the bill after it’s due, after you pay the late fees, [even if] you’re ready to pay that fee on time,” Hall said.

She hasn’t had to pay late fees like that yet, but she’s worried: She’s received a bill statement two weeks late already, and on Monday she received some Social Security papers meant to be delivered in July. She thinks it’s because of the postmaster general’s changes.

“When you start cutting hours and shortchanging the workers, how do you expect to get the mail on time?” Hall asked. “Hopefully, they can get this man [DeJoy] out of there, so they can get someone [who] can run this business the way it need to be. It’s a mess when you don’t get your mail.”

US postal worker Belinda Tillery has been working long hours to keep up with service demands and a shortage in staff due to COVID-19. (Hannah Chinn/WHYY)

Postal worker Belinda Tillery said the USPS has been swamped since March — “like Christmastime all over again.”

Delays are worse, she said, in certain neighborhoods: Point Breeze, Kingsessing, North Philly a few weeks ago. But the influx of packages, combined with a shortage of workers, means mail carriers across the city are covering more than their usual rounds. They can report to work as early as 7, clock out at 8:30 or 9 on the longest days. Tuesday, she was working her usual route, plus two extra hours to cover someone else’s.

“Everybody helping everybody because it’s a real big delay in mail and in packages,” Tillery said. “Shortage of workers, a lot of people sick … everything just don’t get covered every day.”

States including Pennsylvania are suing the Postal Service over service delays and potential threats to the November election. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference before the lawsuit was filed that these states would “be taking action to reinstate Postal Service standards that all Americans depend on.”

Until then, Nguyen and his customers are waiting at the post office for hours, calling the phone line again and again, hoping for a different answer.

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“I think maybe we understand delays, but this — a little bit too long,” Nguyen said. “We hope it gets back to normal soon … some customers, they understand, some customers, they get upset.”

Nguyen took out a new receipt, this time for a different package. He checked the tracking number online and saw that it was several days overdue.

Then he picked up the phone and dialed again.

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