Postal worker Daryl Ha delivers mail in the North Beach area of San Francisco in 2011.

Postal worker Daryl Ha delivers mail in the North Beach area of San Francisco in 2011. Eric Risberg/AP

Consolidations Have Led to More Nighttime Mail Deliveries, Putting Letter Carriers in Danger

Some say expanding services, rather than just cutting costs, is key to saving the Postal Service.

Letter carriers in the Washington, D.C., area are increasingly making nighttime deliveries, despite warnings from the U.S. Postal Service and union representatives of the dangers of doing so.

The number of capital region city carriers returning from their routes after 5 p.m. spiked 14 percent between October 2010 and September 2013, according to an inspector general report. The auditors found the increase was in large part due to USPS’ ongoing network consolidation plan that has shuttered processing plants around the country. The Postal Service aims to have 95 percent of letter carriers return by 5 p.m., but nationwide, 38 percent do not.

The primary cause of the late deliveries was mail not arriving to its penultimate locations on time. USPS typically tries to get the mail to delivery route starting points by 8 a.m., but 60 percent of mail in the D.C. area arrived after 6 p.m., the report found. When the IG inquired as to why the mail was coming in and going out late, local USPS officials said the consolidation of two distribution centers into one “had a major impact on mail arrival time.”

They added USPS management expected to have two days to deliver local mail instead of one as part of the consolidation, but the relaxed service standards never came.

Still, the Postal Service remains optimistic it can fix the problem despite the diminished resources. The IG identified poor supervision as another cause of late deliveries, and postal management agreed to work on improving training and oversight of its local leaders.

The IG found supervisors were not out on the floor at most facilities, and the places where they were saw the timeliest deliveries. Supervisors complained to the IG that when they tried to correct inefficient behaviors, employees filed grievances and won nearly every time.

The Postal Service said it was implementing operational reviews to find solutions to those issues and to create more efficient delivery plans. The IG also recommended management boost safety by issuing reflective uniforms and redirecting routes so deliveries to “dangerous areas” take place earlier in the day, but the Postal Service said it would have to conduct its own review with objective data before instituting new policies.

In 2013, postal labor groups called for the Postal Service to ban after-dark deliveries, following a yet unknown assailant shooting and killing a letter carrier at 7:30 p.m. in Maryland. The IG conducted its review in part because of that tragedy.

In addition to boosting safety, the Postal Service has a financial incentive to bringing letter carriers back on time: Every location the IG visited for its report spent more on overtime over the previous five quarters.

The problems could soon be exacerbated, as USPS plans to launch a new round of processing plant closures in 2015. While the Postal Service continues to try to cut its way to fiscal solvency, however, some are pushing for the agency to boost the services it offers.

Following an IG report floating the idea in January, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., introduced a bill Thursday to expand USPS’ purview to include the offering of basic financial services. The Providing Opportunities for Savings, Transactions and Lending -- or POSTAL -- Act, would enable post office customers to open checking accounts, deposit funds in an interest-bearing savings account and receive small-dollar loans. It would require post offices to offer “postal cards,” which would function essentially as a standard debit card.

The bill actually goes further than the IG’s proposal, which suggested post offices only offer non-bank services. Richmond and the IG agreed the USPS expansion would help bring financial services to currently underserved areas.

The idea has been met with approval by postal unions and some progressive lawmakers, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who advocated the idea at a conference hosted by Pew Charitable Trusts on the subject last week.  At the same conference, however, House Republicans’ postal point man, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., discussed his opposition to the idea.