‘The check’s in the mail!’ But that doesn’t mean it will arrive this week. Or this month.

March 8, 2021 12:02 am


“The check’s in the mail, I tell you!”

Is there anyone who hasn’t either heard or used that line — probably both? It’s right up there with “the dog ate my homework” in the Lame Excuses Hall of Shame.

Back in the day, eyes would roll, often accompanied by a dismissive groan because if the check was, indeed, in the hands of the United States Post Office, it got delivered — on time far more often than late. Rooted in the Constitution itself as a creation of Congress, the Post Office is one of the few government institutions that has historically enjoyed strong public favorability.

Now checks — and bills, and medicines, and legal documents and gifts and greeting cards and everything else that can be addressed, stamped and sent — languish for weeks and even months in the mail.

Customers are being slapped with late charges for missing payment deadlines on snail-mailed bills they’ve yet to receive.

“I had to call the credit card company and tell them that I just got their bill and that it was due three days ago,” said Nancy Long of Port Royal. “I explained that it was not my fault and asked if they could forgo the late fees. They understood and waived it and were nice about it.

“You wonder, though, what that’s going to do to the credit ratings of people, particularly seniors, who don’t have autopay or electronic banking. They’re in a situation they can’t help,” she said.

While Nancy took it in stride, others aren’t so forgiving about hardships — many of them acute — that today’s remarkably late and unreliable mail delivery is causing their businesses and households, and their dissatisfaction has become contagious on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, has received more than 2,000 postal dysfunction horror stories in just the past month from Virginians. There are seniors who have prescriptions refilled by mail to save money and receive their doses too late. There was a woman in McLean who had the water to her deceased father’s Ohio condo shut off because utility bills being forwarded to her in Virginia took weeks to arrive. A sample in a woman’s home cancer screening kit deteriorated to the point of uselessness by the time it arrived weeks late at a lab for analysis. And there was Warner’s own instance in which a birthday card his cousin mailed him in early December arrived on Feb. 5 after an eight-week odyssey in postal oblivion.

Warner is part of a bipartisan chorus in Washington who are losing patience with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. DeJoy inherited substantial problems at the sprawling agency that predates the nation’s founding, and they have worsened since he took charge last summer.

If his name rings a bell, it’s because he was excoriated last summer and fall by Democrats for ordering the removal of mail sorting machinery at post offices across the country just as states put more reliance on voting by mail as a precaution against the coronavirus pandemic. DeJoy was handpicked by former President Donald Trump, who had already made his antipathy toward the postal service in general and mail voting in particular well known. Trump had reckoned — rightly, as it turned out — that voting by mail would give the greatest number of Americans of all ages, health conditions and economic circumstances access to the ballot, and that would be bad news for him.

Some Democrats have pressured President Joe Biden to hasten new appointees onto the USPS Board of Governors, which has the exclusive power to hire and fire postmasters general, with orders to sack DeJoy. Warner isn’t quite to the point of demanding DeJoy’s head on a platter but makes it clear that he wants to see the existing train wreck cleared and the USPS restored to stability and sustainability. Soon!

“Generally, in Virginia, we were running in the low 90s as a percentage of first-class mail arriving on time, meaning three to five days. Those numbers have dropped to mid-40s to the mid-50 percent in most — not everywhere, but most — communities in Virginia,” Warner said.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. To me, it’s Bad Management 101. Maybe some of the changes in terms of getting rid of some of the processing machinery because there’s been a transition from letters to packages may work, but you don’t do that in the middle of a COVID pandemic,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Don McEachin, D-Virginia, is less charitable and advocates DeJoy’s ouster. One member of his 18-person staff works almost exclusively on postal service complaints, he said.

“To be blunt about it, things have gone from bad to worse,” said McEachin, whose sprawling district encompasses much of the  Richmond area and runs south to the North Carolina line, then east to Chesapeake. “The discontent in Congress is widespread, to say the least.”

In fairness, the pandemic has hamstrung the service. The USPS employs more than 600,000 people who, in 2019, delivered 142.6 billion mail pieces to 161 million delivery points, covering 1.34 billion miles — a distance the International Space Station requires eight years and eight months of earth orbit to travel. In 2020, the USPS handled about 14 billion fewer mail pieces because of the pandemic and finished $9.2 billion in the red.

The coronavirus has taken tens of thousands of critical personnel offline both from illness and the need of those exposed to quarantine 10 or more days away from work. Then DeJoy ordered the removal of sorting machines from some post offices.

Postal Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb, testifying Feb. 24 before the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, neatly distilled the agency’s pandemic woes as follows: declines in mail volume and revenue, a surge in parcel volume and revenue that offset declining mail but required expensive and inefficient operational adjustments worsened by COVID illness and quarantine staff absences.

So it’s little wonder that when the holiday package crush hit an already strained system, the result has been delays that have now deeply shaken the confidence mail-dependent business and households had in the USPS.

Regardless of who runs the agency, it faces existential structural financial problems. In addition to recurring operating losses, the USPS has mandatory pre-funded pension and retiree health care liabilities exceeding $188 billion — an issue that far predates DeJoy and that Warner acknowledged will require remedial action by Congress.

This year, DeJoy is expected to seek a significant postal rate hike, perhaps the largest in at least a decade, and likely propose some service cuts in a strategic plan he is still preparing and has declined to discuss. The service expects to hire an additional 10,000 workers in select facilities across the nation.

Through a spokesperson, the USPS declined an interview for this column, but emailed a statement referencing the pandemic-related hardships and talking points from DeJoy’s prepared House Oversight Committee testimony on Feb. 24. In it, DeJoy acknowledged and apologized for USPS’s performance during the peak holiday season that “fell far short of meeting our service targets.”

It’s an open question what the Post Office, first led by Benjamin Franklin, will look like a few years from now. Will two- to three-day first-class mail delivery be forever dead? Will email and other digital document delivery advancements at last supplant it as a courier of vital written information? Will it exist mainly as a package-delivery service, an adjunct to FedEx, UPS and Amazon’s shiny and expanding new fleet? Or will the Post Office be fully replaced by all those private, profit-hungry commercial entities and disappear as a daily fact of American life?

That would be beyond tragic because post offices carry an emotional attachment; they’re woven into the fabric of our communities. This has never been about the agency’s workers, who live in our hometowns and toil long hours, often running home-delivery routes in those clunky, boxy trucks until well after dusk.

It’s about a moment that demands wisdom and leadership worthy of the Post Office’s history, worthy of the 600,000 people who do its work and worthy of the 320 million Americans it has an obligation to serve.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]