- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Last-minute shoppers, beware. If you are running behind in mailing Christmas gifts to loved ones, and you absolutely, positively need your packages to arrive on time, it’s safest to avoid the post office. The U.S. Postal Service is so slow that even a fruit cake could decompose before making it to its intended recipient.

The Postal Service is overburdened and cannot handle its responsibilities. Last week, it was discovered that two post offices in Connecticut were hiding mail in closets to avoid processing the Christmas rush of business. Some packages have been stamped “return to sender” for purportedly having the wrong address even though the addresses were correct. Across the country, there are instances of mail being destroyed or thrown in the garbage.

This is government bureaucracy at its worst. The Postal Service cannot compete with private rivals FedEx or UPS despite having nearly 700,000 subsidized employees, a monopoly on first-class mail and the sole right to use every Americans’ mailbox. Over the past two years, the Postal Service has posted net losses of more than $6.6 billion and predicts at least $7.8 billion in more red ink next year. These losses come in the face of declining volume as customers flee to private carriers. This year alone, mail volume plummeted by 25 billion pieces, or 12.5 percent of its total business, compared to 2008.

Ask colleagues and friends about their recent experience with the post office, and you’re likely to get an earful. The anecdotal evidence of incompetence and poor management is scarier than the post office’s own statistics. For example, on a recent Saturday in December, an Arlington branch only had one employee working the counter. During lunch hour last week, a post office in Alexandria had only two people working the counter. In both cases, lines were backed up out the door during what would be busy times on any normal week. But in the run-up to Christmas during the post office’s busiest month, such nonsensical staffing makes for a madhouse. Rather than any sympathy or pretense to customer service, all exasperated patrons receive from postal workers is a roll of the eyes and the phone number for a complaint line.

The post office doesn’t even pretend to be able to accomplish the services it peddles. In the deficient department, consider the priority mailing option, which costs a premium over regular first-class mail. A doting mother recently paid $26 to send a birthday care package to her hardworking journalist son in Washington. Clerks at the counter and signs in the store all trumpeted that priority mail would deliver the box in two to three days, max. Despite paying extra for priority mail, the package took six days to arrive at its destination.

A clerk admitted there actually is no guarantee for on-time delivery - even when one pays extra for priority mail - and recommended the mailer phone the complaint line, where the caller was put on hold for 30 minutes before the line was cut off. Appropriately enough, that is the same thing that happened to The Washington Times when we sought comment for this article.

One hundred and fifty years ago, mail could get from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific in 10 days, largely on horseback and by stagecoach. Before the inaugural ride of the Pony Express in 1860, the guarantee was made: “Neither storms, fatigue, darkness, mountains and Indians, burning sands or snow must stop the precious bags. The mail must go through.” Today, if you send your precious package via the U.S. Postal Service, you’re lucky if it arrives at all.

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