It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, it all started.
But sometime in or around summer 2017, Miriam Kali-Rai began noticing mail arriving later and later. Often after dark. Some letters never came at all.
The delivery failures complicated matters for all 18 tenants at the Los Gatos office complex she co-owns with her husband, a prominent lobbyist, and a business partner.
“Bills are not getting delivered and checks are not received,” she says. “The whole accounts payable and receivable system is disrupted.”
It wasn’t just that the regular carrier had a bad day, or even a whole run of them. And it certainly wasn’t her imagination.
On Oct. 26, 2017, Kali-Rai emailed her office tenants about how she alerted the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) about the problems and urging them to do the same. On Dec. 11 that same year, she emailed Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) for help. His office tried to intercede, but told her that the USPS, as a federal agency, falls beyond state jurisdiction. On Dec. 13, 2017, she escalated her concerns to Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), whose office assigned her a case number a few weeks later.
Then, nothing. Months turned to years without any word or recourse. Kali-Rai adjusted to a routine of re-delivering mail that wound up in the wrong letterbox.
But the problem has since become impossible to ignore.
Complaints in recent months have exploded on social media and online message boards, prompting Eshoo—as first reported by this news outlet—to finally call for federal intervention. Meanwhile, USPS officials are keeping customers in the dark about a controversial experiment that frontline staff blame for widespread service delays.
Ernie Arranaga, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Branch 193, says a national pilot project to uncouple mail sorting from delivery has triggered a staffing exodus since rolling out at the Campbell Post Office toward the end of last summer. According to Arranaga, the USPS initiative, called “consolidated casing,” has placed “a heavy burden” on local letter carriers and caused several of the most-experienced employees to retire.
“They didn’t lay anyone off,” he says, “but they changed some of the work methods so that carriers are out on the street for longer periods of time. Due to insufficient staffing, there’s also a requirement to work a lot of overtime.”
The issues in Campbell have reverberated throughout the South Bay, as local post offices send some of their own employees to the consolidated-casing site to address the staffing shortfall in Orchard City.
In Santa Clara, city officials fielded complaints from residents who never got a community calendar that was supposed to end up in every mailbox earlier this year. Throughout San Jose, mail began arriving well into the evening. Packages bound for addresses throughout the South Bay were marked in tracking systems as delivered even though they never reached their destinations—a problem documented at other facilities in a USPS Office of Inspector General audit issued this week.
“This definitely triggered a whole chain of events,” says Arranaga, who spent three-and-a-half decades working for the USPS. “We also happen to be in an area that has high parcel volume, which is more labor intensive. It’s really caused a lot of frustration for our members, who take great pride in the work that they do.”
When asked for details about consolidated casing, USPS-spokesman Augustine Ruiz Jr. declined to comment. “That is proprietary information that deals with internal management agreements with our representative unions and employees,” he said.
For a “proprietary” program, there seems to be plenty of public information about it.
Records show that last fall the NALC sued the Postal Service over the consolidated-casing initiative, which officials plan to expand to 230 sites despite horror stories about its impact on local branches throughout the country. A judge dismissed the suit at the end of November, however, saying the court lacked jurisdiction. The union and the USPS now await arbitration over the matter.
The USPS, whose 630,000 unionized employees make it one of the largest federal agencies, has a long history of adversarial relations between management and staff, with much of the conflict centering on workplace safety. Several employees approached for comment on this story have refused, citing fears of retribution. Arranaga says that’s because morale is dismally low, and his members don’t feel secure about speaking out.
Though postal employees make up a fifth of the federal workforce, they account for about half of federal workplace injuries, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Yet despite being accused by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of discriminating against injured workers in 2015 and again in 2017, the USPS has put more of them at risk by ramping up overtime and expanding territory for each carrier to cover.
While having mail sorted by someone else may be intended to streamline the process, staffers say it’s been slowing things down. And by requiring letter carriers to work longer hours to finish their routes, it might be costing more money than it saves.
Increasingly, Arranaga says, delivery employees have questioned whether the $20 to $30 an hour they earn for such grueling work is worth enduring. Especially when measured against the exorbitant cost of living in Silicon Valley.
On a Reddit forum where USPS employees shared their experience with consolidated casing, one commenter claiming to be a disabled 59-year-old letter carrier from Campbell called the pilot program a “major disaster.” The Campbell office lost six carriers since October, she wrote, as shifts stretched from eight to 15 hours a day. Hundreds of parcels piled up on the mailroom floor.
NALC Director of City Delivery Christopher Jackson echoed similar complaints about the consolidated casing pilot in a November 2019 newsletter to members.
“Affected carriers are reporting difficulties in obtaining adequate childcare, inability to attend important events and alienation from friends and family,” he wrote. “In some test offices, carriers are herded like cattle down cluttered, congested, unsafe pathways. NALC has observed emergency exits blocked by test equipment, large quantities of staged mail and equipment blocking egress from the carrier cases, and increased length of exposure to inclement weather, all of which puts postal employees in danger.”
The problems inevitably extend to customers, he added.
“NALC has observed numerous customer service failings during the test,” Jackson wrote, “including entire routes not receiving delivery, pre-sequenced mailings curtailed beyond requested delivery dates, and carriers instructed to disregard the address when delivering walk sequence and [grouped] mail.”
Other issues, he said, include changed addresses not being recorded, mail holds being misplaced to unprocessed and packages arriving at businesses after hours.
Despite all the problems being reported, the Postal Service continues to expand its pilot consolidation program, which is part of a long history of austerity measures to keep the self-funded public corporation afloat in the face of multi-billion-dollar annual losses.
Ruiz says the USPS does, however, plan to organize a town hall with local officials to address the delivery delays. The community meeting is set to take place at 5pm on March 19 at the Campbell Community Center.