Postal service seeks to address staffing issues

Jill Schramm/MDN U.S. Postal Service District Manager Anthony Williams speaks at a meeting on postal delivery issues in Minot Wednesday.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” a postal official told Minot residents concerned about their delivery Wednesday.

Anthony Williams, district manager, and Shannon Fiddler, acting operations manager, both with the U.S. Postal Service met with Sen. John Hoeven, Minot Mayor Tom Ross and two rural Minot households Wednesday in Minot.

Williams attributed many of the mail delivery issues to staffing difficulties, which he said are improving.

“I see light at the end of the tunnel, not only for Minot, but for the entire Minnesota-North Dakota district,” he said.

He called Minot and Bismarck hotspots for problems because of the staffing shortages there. Minot needs to recruit 18 people, he said.

Jill Schramm/MDN Mary and Virgil Lentz look over a calendar on which they tracked the days they received no mail service. They spoke with postal officials about their concerns at a meeting arranged with Sen. John Hoeven Wednesday in Minot.

“Rural delivery is the biggest issue. City delivery is pretty solid,” he said. “If I get 100 people for the whole state, we’re going to be really, really solid and be in good shape.”

The postal service will be holding a job fair July 28 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Minot Post Office.

Tim and Kari Stiel and Virgil and Mary Lentz, who reside on rural Minot mail delivery routes, outlined problems with their mail in recent months.

Kari Stiel, who cited various mail delivery concerns, said the biggest issue has been the inability to get timely medication deliveries. She spoke of difficulties working through the postal service’s complaint submission system and of being brushed off when she tried to get help. At one point, she was told to get a post office box and when she balked, the postal representative hung up, she said. Emailed complaints were replied to with messages that the problem was resolved, even though the problem remained.

“Our biggest issue has been when our regular mail carrier is gone. That’s when we suffer. That’s when we don’t get our mail,” Stiel said. “He should be able to take a vacation. He should be able to be gone. But why should his postal customers not get the service because he’s gone?”

Mary Lentz detailed the service gaps that occurred over a couple of months while their regular mail carrier was on extended leave. Attempting to retrieve mail from the post office during that time, they were told the mail was out for delivery, although it never arrived, she said. Medicine took an extra two weeks to arrive, she said.

Lentz said service improved with the return of the regular carrier, who has finally caught up with the mail backlog. She said she felt sorry for the substitute carriers.

“They were just like in chaos. They didn’t know where they were going. It has to be frustrating for them, too,” she said.

“This can be like a learning experience so it doesn’t happen again.”

“We did learn a lesson from that,” Williams said. He explained several steps the postal service is taking to make improvements, including enhancing employee training.

Williams cited statistics showing 42% of employees in the Minnesota-North Dakota district are eligible to retire in the next five years. Another 42% have worked for the postal service four years or less, he said.

“What that told me is we’ve got to do a better job of coaching and mentoring and training our people because when you’re short, sometimes you hire these people and then you just throw them to the wolves and say, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do. Go do it.’ They don’t know how to do it, and they’re not getting the attention they need. Then they’re going to either not do the job right or quit, and we’ve lost six or seven people that quit,” Williams said.

Fiddler said employees now are being mentored for their first 90 days.

“They’re being fully trained and they have help and all the engagement they need,” she said. “So retention should be better once we get them in the door.”

The postal service hopes to improve its hiring by providing government vehicles to rural carriers rather than requiring they drive their own vehicles. Sixteen vehicles were approved for use in the Minot area.

Seven of the 18 positions open in the Minot area were changed from non-career status to career status, which entitles the worker to benefits and greater job stability. The postal service also is increasing its recruitment at high schools to lure students who are interested in a career job without the college investment. In addition, help with the job application process is being made more accessible.

“In the interim, while we are hiring, we are making it open to anybody in Minnesota and North Dakota that wants to stay in a hotel for 30 to 60 days to come, so we could provide help to the people in Minot. Because I’ve got a few career employees that decided to leave because they were working too many days,” Williams said.

He noted the number of customer complaints already has dropped significantly — to just three last week. Last week in Minot, priority mail was almost 97% on time.

“That mail is flowing pretty good,” Williams said. A training team has been in Bismarck to assist a new plant manager and staff, who are responsible for sorting Minot’s mail.

“We are making some tweaks in the Bismarck plant that will help us be very, very capable and stable,” he said.

Hoeven noted federal legislation requires the postal service to publish daily performance data on its website. When the senator asked when that data will become available, Williams responded that he was told progress is being made but a date isn’t yet available.

Ross called Wednesday’s conversation valuable but added the real test will be whether improvement occurs over the next few months.

“To me, that’s the important part,” he said, urging residents to stay engaged and report problems. “We don’t know how to fix it if we don’t know what’s broken,”

Hoeven agreed that postal customers with lingering problems need to reach out.

“Because this is very important to people. Their mail service, it really matters. This is a big deal,” he said. “We will keep working on it.”


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