Election, holidays  not expected to slow commercial mail

Postal workers, including this one on Minnesota Point, will face added volume during the coming holiday season because more people are expected to mail in their ballots rather than mix with voters during the COVID-19 outbreak. Post office officials say the higher volume shouldn’t delay business mail or packages.

Delays in mail delivery are nothing new. Whether it’s the United States Postal Service (USPS), FedEx, UPS or any other private delivery service, some packages or letters somehow don’t get from Point A to Point B in a timely manner. The reasons are many: mechanical error, human error or simply an Act of God.  Frustrating, but it’s something we’ve come to live with, and even joke about ruefully. 

Then 2020 came along.

With the year came COVID-19 and election jitters. The former has wreaked havoc on lives and the nation’s economy, but has also infected the political process. As election day looms, people are being encouraged to vote by mail for safety reasons. President Donald Trump and his supporters have concerns that voting by mail could encourage voter fraud. Yet others have argued it is a proven and safe means to vote. Regardless, 2020 is set to be a year of unprecedented mail-in voting as people have taken into account the pandemic and the usual high stakes of a presidential election.  

The debate intensified when, last month, the new postmaster general, Trump appointee Louis DeJoy, implemented cost-cutting measures meant to streamline the business of the USPS. Critics lambasted the measures as a way to undermine the election in favor of President Trump.  DeJoy appeared before a Congressional panel to explain his actions and to reassure members his commitment to the success of the USPS.

“I came to the Postal Service to make changes to secure the success of this organization and its long-term sustainability,” said DeJoy. “I believe significant reforms are essential to that objective, and work toward those reforms will commence after the election. In the meantime, there are some longstanding operational initiatives – efforts that predate my arrival at the Postal Service – that have been raised as    areas of concern as the nation prepares to hold an election in the midst of a devastating pandemic. To avoid the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded.”

Toward that effort, DeJoy said that retail hours at Post Offices will not change, mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are, no mail processing facilities will be closed and that overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed.

Despite DeJoy’s assurances, some feel the damage has been done, not only for the election, but for businesses, especially small ones. Left unsaid during DeJoy’s testimony was how the pandemic and the mail-in voting will affect small businesses just as the holiday mail order season begins. Some businesses have already experienced delays, and fear it could get worse as the holiday mailing season heats up.

The National Small Business Association polled its members recently to see how many had experienced such delays. Sixty percent responded they had encountered serious issues in a service that had previously been relatively reliable through the coronavirus pandemic. For many small businesses, the Postal Service is the most common method of shipping, with 65 percent of the National Small Business Association’s members using it over private shippers. That number climbs to 70 percent for businesses with five or fewer employees, the advocacy group said.

“Unfortunately, USPS delays disproportionately impact the smallest of businesses that typically utilize the USPS more than their larger counterparts,” Molly Day, vice president of public affairs for the association, said. “The USPS - while certainly far from perfect - has a leveling effect on commerce, ensuring that even the smallest, home-based businesses can serve and have access to their customers.”

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar agreed. She and Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith have told the postmaster general what they are hearing – that Minnesota small business owners are concerned about the impact that shipment delays may have on their businesses, which were already facing severe operational challenges as a result of the pandemic. 

“Small businesses rely on the U.S. Postal Service for its dependability to reach customers,” said Klobuchar. “Yet many owners are experiencing shipping delays, threatening the relationships they have worked so hard to build. The SBA must take action immediately. I’m urging them to.”

Congressman Pete Stauber did not respond to an interview request.

While not solely focused on the plight of small businesses in the Northland due to mail delays, a rally was held Aug. 21 at the Mt. Royal Post Office in Duluth to support postal workers and demand action to ensure timely delivery of all mail.

“The deliberate measures to slow mail delivery at the Post Office are not new, as Duluth had its only processing plant close back in 2015, but they have created significant delays in the delivery process that are causing problems which have effectively rippled out to impact our economy, our voting process, our health and our way of life,” said Mike Mayou, an organizer for the “We Support The USPS” rally and former Duluth City Council candidate. “At our action that day, we recommended that attendees and others reach out to their legislators and ask that they vote in favor of the Delivering for America Act along with emailing members of the Post Office Board of Governors.”

As with the Congressional hearing, the Duluth rally didn’t address another issue some small businesses are worried about: the looming mail order crush during the holiday season.

This is true for Frost River Trading Co. in Duluth, which manufactures luggage, apparel and accessories for the outdoors. As their website explains, the company processes online orders almost every day, and maintains stock levels to ensure immediate delivery, but that uniquely-manufactured items may take longer to deliver. According to David Hoole, Frost River’s marketing coordinator, a late delivery sometimes occurs, but they try to avoid that by covering the extra cost for faster delivery. 

“We ship about 60 to 70 percent of our goods by U.S. Mail, so we’re concerned about what’s going on with the USPS,” said Hoole. “We give the customer the flexibility to choose the delivery option they desire, and in most cases, they choose the U.S. Mail because it’s less expensive. If there ends up being delays in U.S. Mail delivery this Fall and holiday season, the customer may end up having to pay more for shipping.”

By contrast, Sivertson Gallery of Grand Marais, rarely uses the USPS for its shipping needs.

“For us, it’s the nature of our product,” said Anna Klobuchar, sales manager. “Our paintings, sculptures and other art come in different sizes and weight. No two items are alike, so this doesn’t work with the standardized mailing of the USPS. For example, a package weighing, say, five pounds, shipped with Priority Mail, could cost between $38 to $40. With UPS or Speedy (Delivery) we can ship it for around $22.  We’ll use the USPS for business correspondence generally.”

Dave Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, said businesses, of every size and industry, depend on the United States Postal Service to provide timely, consistent, and predictable delivery service, and while this dependency is not limited to the holiday season, it’s still a concern for the Chamber and its members. 

“It is the routine, every workday, service that businesses must be able to count on,” said Ross. “If delays occur, it reflects poorly on the business and not on the postal service. This is why, a few years ago, the Chamber fought so hard to maintain Duluth’s postal processing center. We recognized then, as we do now, how an additional day or two added to the delivery of mail can delay critical payments to a business, and delay the delivery of promised, date sensitive products purchased from a business.”

While Postmaster General DeJoy is addressing these concerns before Congress, his regional subordinates are reassuring businesses, said Nicole Hill, strategic communications specialist for the Northland and Hawkeye Districts of the USPS, which includes all of Minnesota. Her message: Pandemic? No problem. Election? Piece of cake. Christmas? Santa won’t be late.

“We have more than enough capacity to handle Election Mail, the fall mailing season and the holidays,” said Hill. 

Dave Boe is a Duluth-based freelance writer