WASHINGTON — Baltimore has seen some of the worst delays of the U.S. Postal Service’s national delivery woes, and the Office of Inspector General is taking a deeper look at why the city’s mail service has been particularly sluggish.
During a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday on the Postal Service’s annual budget and the agency’s delivery issues, USPS Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb told federal lawmakers that a team from her office is in the process of visiting nine Baltimore-area delivery units to investigate the causes of the mail-processing challenges there and to offer recommendations.
Baltimore is listed among the bottom 10 service areas on the online performance tracker created by the inspector general’s office, showing an on-time delivery percentage of 61.7%.
But the city isn’t alone in the delivery struggles: Whitcomb said her office will be launching a targeted look this fall at 10 mail processing plants across the country that have been challenged for years, but were particularly hard-hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. She did not offer a full list of which plants will be involved in that review. The performance tracker map shows both of North Carolina’s two divisions as performing slightly below the target performance level.
The processing plants that have seen the worst challenges, she said, are ones in Baltimore and elsewhere that “were kind of barely above water” before the pandemic stressed the agency’s workforce and incoming Postmaster General Louis DeJoy implemented a series of controversial changes, such as cutting back on extra trips and slashing overtime.
Whitcomb said those changes, along with others intended to address ongoing efficiency issues, were implemented inconsistently around the country, and at a time when the agency was severely strained by the pandemic.
“This had a really significant impact on service because it was happening along with employee availability issues and an increased number of packages in the mail because of COVID,” she said.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, (D-Md.), who chaired Tuesday’s Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, said he’s heard from thousands of irate constituents about the mail delays, expressing frustration that those delays have lingered even after Congress approved additional money to help USPS mitigate pandemic effects.
“Fortunately, performance has improved somewhat, according to recent data provided by the Postal Service, both nationally and in Maryland,” Van Hollen said. “But Marylanders, and I know others around the country, continue to experience some of the worst service that we’ve seen.”
Legislators also heard from Marylanders affected by the mail delays, including Rania Dima, a Frederick resident who began learning to read Braille after losing her ability to read printed pages and later electronic screens. Her attempts to learn Braille were slowed by numerous delays in receiving equipment and materials through the USPS’s Free Matter for the Blind service.
Those materials took weeks or months to arrive from Baltimore — much longer than it took for her to receive other mail sent from Baltimore. At one point, Dima’s Braille instructor also was waiting for a delayed book, so Dima sent her copy through the standard mail service and it arrived within a week.
The delays in receiving the instructional materials meant that she hasn’t been able to progress as quickly as expected in her Braille courses, and Dima asked a fellow member of the National Federation of the Blind to read her written statement aloud during the hearing.
“From my perspective, the federal, state and private agencies that support me are being thwarted, and I feel marginalized,” Dima said in the prepared statement.
Karen Meyers, whose Baltimore business involves getting checks delivered from printers to labor unions across the country, described to lawmakers the ongoing problems she has encountered with stolen checks and delayed invoices as the mail delivery has struggled.
Meyers said some customers were understanding, telling her about their own delayed Christmas cards arriving late. But she fears the postal issues only have further fueled a deepening mistrust of and hostility toward government institutions.
“When a trusted institution that people have relied on their whole lives like the post office fails, that certainly doesn’t help the situation,” she said. “In fact, it exacerbates it.”