Although troubles with mail delivery have eased in Minot and parts of northwestern North Dakota over the past year, the U.S. Postal Service continues to work on nagging issues that might only be resolved with more staffing.
Finding and retaining employees has been difficult, but the postal service has had some success, said Karen Fredrickson, marketing manager for the U.S. Postal Service in Sioux Falls, S.D. Since June 2013, the postal service has hired 161 employees to fill vacancies or new positions in western North Dakota.
Fredrickson is managing an outreach program in northwestern North Dakota, set up by the postal service to address mail-delivery frustrations that peaked in oil patch communities a year ago. Late, returned and undelivered mail were common complaints, particularly in Williams and McKenzie counties.
Postal clerk Jane Heller scans a package being picked up at the Minot Post
Minot has experienced similar postal issues on a smaller scale.
"We have brought in help to this entire area. We have hired 80 since last November," Fredrickson said in Minot Wednesday. "We have brought in about 25 individuals from other states. Here in Minot, we have a supervisor from Fargo. ... That's helped to fill some of the spots until we can get them hired. Hiring is a slow process."
A job fair in Minot in mid-December drew 67 applicants for 10 clerk or carrier jobs and two supervisor positions. The post office is using temporary staff to assist while the hiring process continues. The Minot Post Office employs 105 full- and part-time employees.
Fredrickson, who is visiting the region this week, said the challenge is not just filling jobs but keeping them filled.
"Retention is a big issue for us," Fredrickson said. "They figure out it's not an easy job. It's hard work. They will sometimes go elsewhere."
The postal service has attempted to retain employees by creating career positions that offer insurance and other benefits.
"We need to figure out how to make jobs attractive. Our workforce is getting older, and there is going to be a lot of retirements in the next three to five years. So we really have some concerns about that hiring phase, especially up here in this area where there's so many other job opportunities," Fredrickson said.
The postal service continues to create new positions in western North Dakota, particularly in Dickinson, Williston and Watford City. The ideal situation is to hire local people who have knowledge of their communities and may already have housing. It is difficult to bring new people into the area because of housing costs, Fredrickson said.
The postal service also has been organizing consumer advisory councils in area communities to identify the expectations of the post office, determine what problems exist and brainstorm solutions.
A newly organized consumer advisory council in Minot has targeted undeliverable mail as its focus and hopes to educate the public on proper addressing and packaging. Among possible strategies are brochures sent to the public, displays in the post office lobby and hand-outs at relevant community events, such as an upcoming wedding gala.
The Minot council is interested in having seminars or webinars on addressing and packaging for business customers and in educating the public on Valentine's Day mailings. Fredrickson said envelopes containing candy hearts still are showing up in the mail, even though they slow the postal process because they must be removed for hand sorting. Envelopes that slip through can damage sorting equipment.
Another project of the council is to promote use of the self-service kiosk in the post office, possibly by holding an educational open house on its use. The postal service introduced the kiosk as a means of reducing long lines and wait times in the post office.
"People are still a little leery of it or don't understand it," Fredrickson said.
Also under discussion is a potential project to investigate closing the street on the north side of the post office to expand parking.
Minot's consumer advisory council has seven members. The postal service would like to increase the council's membership with more small business and general citizenry representation. Minot residents interested in participating can contact postmaster Michelle Hanson at 857-6121.
The advisory council meets every other month.
Across the Minot region, eliminating undeliverable mail is the current focus of the postal service.
One cause of undeliverable mail is improper addressing, Fredrickson said. Customers who receive mail in a postal box can't receive mail addressed to a physical address that isn't on a carrier route. Most online product-ordering systems enable people to list both a post office box and physical address. If a system doesn't want to take a P.O. Box, it often is possible to override the limitation by instead typing "POB" or "Box" before the box number, Fredrickson said.
In smaller communities, and in some cases in Minot, UPS and Fed Ex deliver to the post office for final delivery to the customer. This makes post office box numbers important when ordering through those carriers, Fredrickson said.
Another primary cause of undeliverable mail is the post office's lack of timely knowledge about new addresses being created. Fredrickson said the postal service wants to build a stronger relationship with cities and their development groups to get information about new housing projects earlier.
The postal service is not expanding door-to-door carrier service into new developments in Minot. Instead, the postal service is constructing neighborhood mailbox stations where residents can pick up their mail using assigned keys. These group boxes also were established permanently in some flooded neighborhoods for residents who returned after the 2011 disaster. Each box station serves about 16 residences.
"We use those now because they are secure," Fredrickson said. "It speeds up our delivery a lot."
Neighborhood mailboxes eventually could come to other existing housing areas, but the postal service first is working to keep up with construction of the boxes in new developments, she said.