A historic amount of packages and rising employee COVID-19 rates are causing significant backlogs at US Postal Service processing facilities before Christmas.
All the shopping and shipping Americans have done in the last few weeks has inundated the system with what the USPS says is a "historic volume" of mail and packages.
"The packages are up to the ceiling" in Philadelphia, local American Postal Workers Union president Nick Casselli told CNN. "I've been in postal for 35 years, I've never seen what I'm seeing."
He says there are so many new packages -- upwards to 250,000 a day at the largest processing facility -- that the USPS opened a fourth annex just to store them all. There are so many incoming packages the postal workers can't process them in time, Casselli said.
But it's not just Philadelphia that's dealing with the historic volume of packages. Union presidents and postal workers across the US -- in Illinois, Michigan, California, Florida, Maine and New York -- say they, too, are seeing record volumes of packages and backlogs.
Efforts to clear the backlog, they say, are being undercut by rising number of COVID-19 cases and quarantined postal employees. There are now fewer employees to run the machines to process the tsunami of mail and packages.
USPS refused to release any statistics to CNN -- on mail volume or employee coronavirus quarantine rates -- but APWU National president Mark Dimondstein confirmed to CNN that there are now upwards of 18,750 USPS employees across the US on the quarantine list every day.
In comparison, there were around 8,000 on the daily quarantine list before Thanksgiving, he said.
The USPS has grappled with these issues throughout the pandemic, but they've become what APWU New York president Jonathan Smith called "a perfect storm."
While the postal system grapples with the logistical problems, Americans are -- once again -- facing delays in deliveries.
"The U.S. Postal Service, similar to the broader shipping sector, continues to face near-term pressure on service performance across categories as it manages through a historic record of holiday volume this season," USPS spokesperson Kim Frum told CNN in a statement. "This negative impact is compounded by the temporary employee shortage due to the COVID-19 surge, as well as ongoing capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail."
Postal workers and union presidents say small backlogs and delays aren't uncommon during the holiday season. But the size and scope of the current backlogs are reminiscent of the major mail delays that occurred in July and August after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy enacted transformative policy changes at the USPS.
Those changes have since been reversed, but DeJoy has signaled they could return in 2021.
"It's not a perfect storm, it's a perfect mess."
Although the USPS has some machines that can sort packages, a significant portion of the packages fall into a "non-machineable" category, meaning they must be sorted by hand. When there's a massive influx of packages in the mail stream, it can take an substantial number of USPS employees to process it.
A dramatic increase in positive COVID-19 cases -- and employees quarantining because of exposure to the virus -- is significantly limiting the processing power of USPS to move the historic amount of packages.
"It's not a perfect storm, it's a perfect mess," Scott Adams, postal worker and Portland, Maine local APWU president, told CNN of the double gut punch from COVID-19 and historic package volume.
Keith Combs, APWU Detroit president, told CNN that COVID-19 is spreading in the plants there "like wildfire."
"[The Detroit processing facilities] are gridlocked; they can't take any more packages at this point," Combs said.
In the Western region of New York, postal worker and local APWU president Lori Cash told CNN that mail processing has been significantly reduced because over 400 employees -- the majority in mail processing -- are out on quarantine. She said the region has about 6,000 employees.
"There was no one to run the machines," Cash said.
APWU Los Angeles president Dominic Davis says the USPS international service center in Los Angeles doesn't have enough workers available to quickly clear the mail that's piled up to the doors.
All this is translating to significant disruptions in mail delivery and Americans not receiving their packages, or mail.
When drivers from southern Maine showed up in Philadelphia to pick up their mail, they were turned away, said Adams. The overloaded processing plant had no packages for them because they hadn't been able to process them yet.
There are so many packages clogging the processing and distribution facility in Philadelphia, one of the biggest in the US, Casselli said it's become unsafe to work there. Combs described similar conditions at the George W. Young processing and distribution facility in Detroit.
The union presidents said there were dozens of tractor trailers -- fully loaded with unprocessed packages and mail -- sitting outside the processing facilities and at loading bays. Inside, the floors and hallways are lined with packages.
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According to Cash, union members said mail had to be diverted from Philadelphia to their already overwhelmed processing facilities in western New York.
This, too, affected the USPS stations where mail carriers pick up their mail for the day, Cash and Combs said.
"We would go a couple of days with very little mail," Cash said.
However, through time and manpower, Cash believes the postal workers are starting to make a significant dent in the backlog of mail at the plant in western New York.
"We've processed in the last couple of days more mail than we have in the last week," she said.
In an effort to clear the backlog, the union presidents and postal workers have all told CNN that USPS is utilizing as much overtime as humanly possible. But it's just going to take time.
"Amid the historic volume, the Postal Service continues to flex its network, including making sure the right equipment is available to sort, process and deliver a historic volume of mail and packages this holiday season," said Frum, the USPS spokesperson.
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"Our entire Operations team, from collections, to processing to delivery, worked throughout this past weekend and continues to work around the clock to address the historic volume. We are accepting all volume that is presented to us which is adding to our challenges."
Why the USPS is overwhelmed by packages
In previous months, postal workers who spoke with CNN put the meteoric rise in package volume since the start of the pandemic into context by saying "every day is Christmas."
Now that it is the holiday season, that package volume has reached new heights -- USPS says a record -- because more people are shopping online. Because of the pandemic, many families are shipping presents to family and friends for the holidays instead of traveling.
Even if private shipping companies like Amazon, UPS or FedEx handle a package, they frequently utilize the USPS to handle the "final mile" and actually deliver it to a customer. Unlike the private companies, the USPS delivers to every address in the US.
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Dimondstein, the APWU president, says this shows how critical the public mail system is to the country. Unlike the private carriers, they will pick up and ship all packages and mail.
But right now, it's also compounding the backlogs.
Cash said on top of all their normal USPS mail and packages, FedEx is dropping off over 800 packages a day at the mail carrier station in western New York. They would normally receive around 200 a day.
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Cash says she's worked for USPS for 22 years and has never seen anything like this.
FedEx and UPS have also reporting shipping delays as well.
"Record high volumes of e-commerce orders, COVID 19 closures and weather events may cause delivery delays," a banner reads on FedEx's website.
On Twitter, UPS has also been informing customers they, too, "are experiencing delays due to holiday volume and the global pandemic."
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