Las Vegas, Seattle, San Diego, Orlando and countless communities in between will see mail service slow by as much as a day under the U.S. Postal Service’s strategic restructuring plan, a Washington Post analysis shows.
The new delivery regimen, which takes effect Oct. 1, disproportionately affects states west of the Rocky Mountains and the country’s mainland extremities, including large swaths of southern Texas and Florida.
The proposed service standards, or the amount of time the agency says it should take to deliver a piece of first-class mail, represent the biggest slowdown of mail services in more than a generation, experts say. It involves significant reductions in airmail — a Postal Service tradition dating to 1918 — and geographic restrictions on how far a piece of mail can travel within a day.
Seventy percent of first-class mail sent to Nevada will take longer to arrive, according to The Post’s analysis, as will 60 percent of the deliveries to Florida, 58 percent to Washington state, 57 percent to Montana, and 55 percent to Arizona and Oregon. In all, at least a third of such letters and parcels addressed to 27 states will arrive more slowly under the new standards.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy contends the plan will cut costs, revitalize the agency’s network and create more consistency in transportation schedules. Though the Postal Service has significantly outpaced its own financial expectations so far this year, it faces a projected $160 billion deficit over the next decade. It estimates that the transportation changes will save as much as $10 billion over that span.
“This allows, from our perspective, for the customers to plan, to have predictability,” Robert Cintron, the Postal Service’s vice president of logistics, said in an interview. “They’re going to know what they’re going to get. There’s that one to two days for the longest [delivery] distances that we have to achieve, and we have to achieve those today. Whether we’re traversing 300 or 3,000 miles, it’s the same service standard. And that’s really the part that we see that’s not sustainable.”
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The logistical challenges, for example, of getting a letter from Maine to the Grand Canyon — where the agency famously delivers mail from a sack on a mule — won’t change, even if the time allotted to make the deliveries will.
But consumer advocates and the mailing industry’s largely friendly but competitive stakeholders have panned the new initiative, saying it will harm customers, drive away mail users and further erode the 246-year-old agency’s credibility, which has taken a hit after a year of pronounced delivery declines.
Attorneys general from 21 states, led by Pennsylvania and New York, in June wrote to the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) to oppose the changes, arguing they discriminate against mail consumers based on geography and that the Postal Service was poised to fall back into poor operational decisions that slowed mail service in the run-up to the 2020 elections.
“Only once the Postal Service has shown that it can reliably meet its performance targets should it consider whether it is necessary to change its service standards to address long-term trends in the utilization of its products,” the group wrote.
The Postal Service plans to raise prices on certain mail products — pushing the price of a first-class stamp from 55 to 58 cents — while reducing service standards. For each change, the agency must seek an advisory opinion from the PRC but those rulings are not enforceable. The Postal Service can proceed with the changes regardless of the outcome.
“It’s codified in law that the Postal Service is supposed to be binding the nation together,” said Doug Carlson, a postal advocate who cross-examined agency executives during a June hearing before the PRC. “And I don’t think you bind the nation together by saying, ‘Well, if you live on one of the coasts, then you’re going to get slow service just because you’re far away from everyone else.’ ”
The new standards would apply only to mail on which the Postal Service holds a monopoly, including first-class mail, like letters and postcards, and such periodicals as newspapers and magazines. The agency in June announced plans to lengthen delivery windows on “first-class package service,” which are small parcels often used to ship medications, lightweight e-commerce purchases and small electronics.
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DeJoy and agency leaders say the new expectations will provide more stability for delivery schedules, noting that the Postal Service has not hit its current mail service standards — two days for mail sent within 279 miles, three days for mail sent further, with a timely delivery rate of 96 percent — for close to a decade. In fact, the agency has not surpassed 90 percent since DeJoy instituted cost-cutting measures last summer.
They also contend that adding as much as two days on certain mail deliveries will not fundamentally alter the agency’s service and that individual mailers and businesses will be able to easily adjust to the new time frames.
The delivery windows are based largely on changes in mail transportation. The Postal Service plans would halve the amount of mail it transports by plane, instead moving it across the country by truck. The agency contends the move will save money and improve reliability; by the end of 2020, only 58 percent of air-transport trips arrived on time, the agency reported, forcing it to spend more on extra mail transportation.
Moving items through the agency’s network by plane requires 11 mail-handling steps at minimum, the agency says, while trucks require only five steps.
“When an entire plane of mail off the West Coast misses coming into the East Coast, it’s not a little bit of volume that you’re impacting. You’re impacting many customers because of that unreliability,” Cintron said. “Again, our focus is to put it on the ground where we know what we can control.”
The new standards allot two days for items traveling as far as 139 miles, three days for 930 miles, four days for 1,907 miles and five days for anything beyond, with an on-time rate of 95 percent.
Packages would arrive in two days if delivery is within an eight-hour driving radius, three days within 32 hours, four days within 50 hours and five days for anything further. The current service standard sets delivery times for two or three days regardless of destination.
But many experts say a shake-up of this magnitude will present major mail disruptions, and could mean higher costs for consumers. Mailers and package shippers have cultivated finely calibrated processes, they say, designed to ship everything from utility bills to bank statements to medications. They are engineered to seamlessly interact with the Postal Service’s schedules and will face unprecedented disruptions to adapt to the new delivery standards.
“From a pharmacist’s perspective, you’re really, as a provider, at the mercy of a delayed logistical system,” said Anthony Ciaccia, senior adviser at the American Pharmacists Association. “Now it’s a crapshoot. Is it going to be two days, three days, four days, five days, a week? Two? What happens if it ends up in the wrong spot? Now, you restart that process all over again. To me, it just adds unnecessary delays in a treatment plan that has exigency, and life and death and well-being is on the line.”
“As a mailer, you really can’t control how the Postal Service’s network is set up,” said Todd Haycock, president of the Major Mailers Association trade group. “But it appears that the Postal Service is optimizing their network for packages and moving mail to something that’s less important.”
The Postal Service also dropped its on-time delivery targets — the percentage at which it says mail should arrive on time — to the lowest point in recent memory. The agency amended its 2020 report to Congress on May 14, five months after it turned in the original report, and revised its service targets to 88 percent for two-day first-class mail, and 69 percent for three-to-five-day first-class mail.
Agency spokesman David Partenheimer wrote in an emailed statement that the Postal Service amended the report because it needed additional time to assess the effects of the pandemic on transportation capacity and employee availability.
“The Postal Service has studied customer preferences, and found that reliability is a top driver of customer satisfaction,” Partenheimer wrote. “Consequently, we are confident that the public will benefit from our effort to introduce greater predictability.”
The agency announced the new service standards — part of DeJoy’s “Delivering for America” plan — less than one month before President Biden’s three appointees to the Postal Service’s nine-member governing board were confirmed.
Though the strategy was endorsed by the six sitting governors — all Trump administration appointees — it was widely condemned on Capitol Hill. A group of House Democrats even introduced legislation to block it, naming it the Delivering Envelopes Judiciously On-time Year-round Act, or DEJOY Act.
“I’m not necessarily bought into moving the goal posts on service right out of the gate,” newly sworn governor Amber McReynolds (I) said in an interview, “especially when we thought the pandemic was the reason behind [service problems].”
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The Post’s analysis used Postal Service data submitted to the PRC that outlined the current and proposed service standards for mail sent between combinations of three-digit Zip codes. Zip codes can be combined by their first three digits to cover larger geographic areas. The Post calculated the average change in service standards, weighted by the amount of mail sent between those Zip codes. The agency did not report data on Alaska, Hawaii or Puerto Rico.
Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of Congress told The Post they’d review the new delivery timetables with a focus on how they affected their constituents and how the agency could better balance its service obligations with its financial difficulties.
Of particular concern, officials of both parties said, is how the new standards will slow mail to rural communities. Postal Service logistics, modeling and analytics director Stephen Hagenstein said in written testimony to the PRC that the service standards would have roughly equal effects on urban and rural Zip codes. The Post’s analysis reached a similar conclusion.
“I’m telling you that the mail, in my opinion, in my state has not gone by where the Pony Express is. It’s really important,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “So what are you trying to do here? I mean, you’re trying to just eliminate rural America, is that what the goal is? Because where I come from … people still depend upon the mail.”
“If people are going to experience a reduction in service,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), “I want to see two things: One, that it has got some sort of fairness instead of just, ‘Oh, yeah, it ends up regional.’ And two, I want to know that there was some sort of market analysis done … because I think the last thing you would want if you’re competing in terms of delivering communications in this day and age is, ‘Oh, we’re going to deliver them slower.’ I just don’t see that as market-neutral.”
Dylan Moriarty contributed to this report.