Snow, rain, heat and gloom of night might not delay postal delivery. But an oil boom is something else again.
The U.S. Postal Service has struggled to provide adequate staffing for post offices in some oil-boom towns, where populations have ballooned in recent years. Long lines at postal windows, late mail, returned mail and undelivered mail started to become common complaints. Just when things didn't seem like they could get much worse, along came Christmas.
Gretchen Stenehjem with First International Bank in Watford City said a postal worker told her that 700 packages arrived at the local post office on Christmas Eve, an overwhelming number for two employees who were already swamped. Many packages shipped through Fed Ex or UPS are routed to local post offices for final delivery under an agreement between those companies and the postal service.
A postal customer drops mail in the outside box at the Minot Post Office Friday.
"We just have to have more staff," Stenehjem said. "We are not getting our mail. The mail is not coming in a timely manner. This is a big problem for businesses."
The Watford City Post Office ran out of postal boxes, so new customers have been forced to get their mail through general delivery, which means they line up at the counter along with customers looking to buy stamps, mail packages or conduct other postal business. Waits can be 40 minutes to an hour, which Stenehjem said is unacceptable for the elderly and unworkable for businesses.
"This needs to get resolved," she said. "We don't have a lot of other options. We have to use the post office."
Minot on edge of oil-boom postal woes
BY JILL SCHRAMM
Minot residents aren't experiencing the same level of postal frustration as their neighbors farther west, but they've noticed some later delivery times and the occasional delayed deliveries.
Also, after the 2011 flood, the postal service restored delivery to residents of the valley through the use of postal box clusters. Residents, who accepted the boxes as temporary, aren't pleased that they still well over a year later are walking a block, or two or three, to get their mail.
Taken together, these circumstances give residents the impression that the Minot Post Office must be busy these days.
The Minot Post Office is at full staffing, said Pete Nowacki, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, Minneapolis. It has been challenging to find substitutes for rural routes, but a successful job fair helped address that concern, he said.
Information on how staff numbers have changed at the Minot Post Office wasn't readily available. However, Nowacki said automation and a decline in mail volume has enabled the postal service to decrease its employee numbers nationwide. Thanks to alternative communication methods, such as e-mail and other electronic options, mail volume has declined 25 percent in the past six years.
Geographically, carrier routes aren't necessarily any shorter in Minot, though.
A Minot postal employee, who requested anonymity, said service is suffering with too few carriers to deliver the city mail. The employee said the postal service's decision not to replace retiring carriers leaves existing carriers with more addresses than they can deliver to at times. One carrier on Friday was delivering mail that had been waiting to go out since Saturday.
The employee added that first-class mail gets priority so often postal delays affect mostly bulk items sometimes known as "junk" mail. However, Christmas puts additional pressure on the post office, and packages can get delayed as well. The employee stressed that the problem is not the local management, noting, "They just don't have the tools to work with."
Watford City residents have taken their concerns to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. There's talk of pushing the matter further with the congressional delegation, but residents question how much can be done. Nearly every business in oil country knows first-hand the difficulty in finding employees and in ensuring that they have housing.
Pete Nowacki, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, Minneapolis, acknowledges the problem.
"Staffing is a huge issue. We have had people retire in the area, and it's just very, very difficult to get replacements, and it's difficult to get additional people to keep up with some of the growth," he said.
It also can be difficult for the postal service to meet the higher wages being paid in oil country, he said.
The postal service has sought to address the problem by bringing in temporary workers from other locations, including South Dakota, Montana and Grand Forks.
Mike Steffan, general manager at Northwest Communication Cooperative in Ray, said the local post office has not been able to fill the part-time position created when the postal services eliminated a full-time postmaster slot. The postal service has been rotating temporary workers and opening window service only one hour a day, Steffan said.
He said his staff has taken to conducting postal business in Tioga, considering that hectic post office to be an improvement over Ray's. In Watford City, people travel to Arnegard or Alexander to avoid waits.
The situation is no better in Williston. City auditor John Kautzman said the city will get cards to sign for certified letters, but when they go to the post office to find out what happened to the actual letters, the post office will not be able to find them in its volume of mail.
Chris Jundt, a Williston bank officer and past Chamber of Commerce president, said businesses are shifting more to Fed Ex or UPS when they need faster service since next-day mail is hard to come by. He also said private companies have set up and rented out postal boxes. They provide mail delivery from the post office to customers who chose that option when the post office had no boxes left.
Neal Shipman, publisher of the McKenzie County Farmer in Watford City, said delays haven't affected local delivery of his newspaper, but they have affected items mailed to the newspaper for publication. A delay is especially problematic when it involves a legal notice, which senders must have published under a timeline set by law, he said.
Nowacki said a partial solution to the strain on post offices is to establish alternative access points. A business can contract with the postal service to set up a station where people can buy stamps and mail letters and packages. Williston has a couple of postal stations, but smaller communities in the oil patch do not. Businesses often are stretched thin by the heightened activity and tight workforce supply and haven't been moved by the postal service's urging to open a postal station.
Despite the challenges, Nowacki said the postal service is intent on fixing the problems.
"We will keep hammering away on this because service is what we sell, and, of course, with the upturn in an area like that, that means there's opportunities for us," he said. "We have to take advantage of those, and the only way we are going to take advantage of them is by providing the type of service that people expect."