‘No margin for error’: Local mail issues discussed at roundtable
Sen. John Hoeven was in the Magic City on Thursday, and mail was on his mind.
The last year brought with it reports of inconsistency in the mail services in Minot and the surrounding area. These inconsistencies have caused growing angst across the community as more than a few birthday cards, paychecks and packages wound up delayed, amongst many other reported issues.
“Mail service is essential for individuals, families and businesses, who rely on USPS to deliver everything from life-saving medications to bills and financial documents,” said Hoeven. “We continue to hear from North Dakotans, particularly in Minot, about long delays in mail delivery and excessive wait times at the post office.”
The senator held a roundtable at the Judge Bruce M. Van Sickle Federal Building with Minot Mayor Tom Ross, Minot Area Chamber EDC Chairman Kevin Black, MACEDC President and CEO Brekka Kramer and Minot City Council member Lisa Olson. They were joined by U.S. Postal Service Minnesota/North Dakota District Manager Anthony Williams and Post Office Operations Manager Shannon Fiddler over Zoom and were given the opportunity to share the experiences of the Minot community.
“There’s no margin for error. It’s a common theme throughout the numerous phone calls that we’ve taken during this process. We kind of feel like our hands are tied,” Ross said. “It has just reached a very high frustration level.”
Black, a business owner with a business footprint across North Dakota and in multiple states, shared his experiences with prolonged delays for mailings that on paper are only going from Minot to Williston, but somehow get lost in the shuffle.
“We still rely on the U.S. mail service very heavily. Getting those vital documents or material back and forth is really important. But also, we have locations in four other states, so relying on that and getting our mail in a timely fashion is really important,” Black said. “People still use checks to pay for things. In this really challenging business climate, having a check delayed for a week can be tough for a small business owner.”
Prior to the roundtable, Hoeven toured the Minot facility with Fiddler to get a better understanding of the problems being experienced by Minot residents at the existing post office facility, which has resided in the same building for 61 years. Hoeven acknowledged a number of concerns brought to his office regarding the limited parking at the facility, as well as the sloped icy surfaces of the walkways during the winter months. As more mail customers began experiencing delays and disruptions to their daily mail deliveries, the post office facility was often crowded at peak hours, especially during a holiday season that would be hectic and busy even without these extra issues.
“At a city council meeting I put out a public request for the postmaster to just come and kind of let people know what the situation was. I think communication is important,” Olson said. “I did get an email from someone in St. Paul (Minnesota), indicating that they would not be sending someone, and I think that was kind of a disappointment to the residents. I think that they’re willing to work with the post office if they just have an idea of when they can expect to get some mail.”
According to Williams, the unfortunate reality facing the USPS is similar to that of many other businesses and entities across the country — they just don’t have enough warm bodies to throw at the problem.
Minot currently has 33 in-town mail routes and 20 rural mail routes. While the post office has enough full-time employees to cover all of the in-town routes, they are only substituted by part-time flex workers to cover vacation and sick leave. The roster for the rural carriers isn’t as robust, with only 15 people to cover all 20 routes. To mitigate the shortfall city carriers and even the postmaster have been covering when they are available.
“We are not in a crisis in rural delivery or city delivery in Minot, but we are still short approximately 15 people in order to meet the contract so that rural carriers can have a choice day off,” Williams said. “We are in really good shape on the city delivery side with replacements, so then we do have a buffer in case there are issues. We have been able to get some hires, and we haven’t had any deliver issues in Minot in 30 days. Do we need to hire? Yes, we do. But we have overtime that we can flex in order to get the consistent service that we’re looking for.”
Williams credited these hiring successes to new hires being brought on right away as career employees which entitles them to benefits and higher hourly wage.
While a great deal of the post office’s struggles can be blamed on the workforce issue, Williams expressed sympathy for the struggles of mail customers and directed the public to file official complaints directly through the USPS website to ensure they are promptly responded to. All complaints are reviewed by the postmaster’s direct supervisor, who generally will seek to resolve the issue in three days.
“Being a letter carrier is not easy work. It’s not like “Cheers” with Cliff walking in sitting at the bar all day. We expect these people to deliver every letter, every flat, every package, every route, every day, and it breaks my heart. We are dealing with shortages I haven’t seen for 43 years, and we need to find a way to get through that,” Williams said.
Williams indicated that future job fairs are planned to shore up the facilities in Bismarck and in Williston. Black and Kramer both expressed that the MACEDC was interested in discussing a similar event in Minot with Fiddler as well.