A rural post office was told to prioritize Amazon packages. Chaos ensued.

Steve HutkinsBlog, News

Washington Post: BEMIDJI, Minn. — When Delbert Mikelson’s mail started showing up late — and sometimes not showing up at all — he blamed it on the opening of deer season.

“I thought my carrier was out hunting,” Mikelson said over a breakfast of eggs and pancakes at Raphael’s Bakery Cafe in downtown Bemidji.

But it wasn’t the buck hunt delaying the mail in Bemidji, a tiny town 100 miles south of the Canadian border where welcome signs are written in both English and Ojibwe and statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox tower in downtown. Since early November, Bemidji has been bombarded by a sudden onslaught of Amazon packages — and local postal workers say they have been ordered to deliver those packages first.

The result has been chaos at the Bemidji post office. Mail is getting backed up, sometimes for days, leaving local residents waiting for checks, credit card statements, health insurance documents and tax rebates. Routes meant to take eight or nine hours are stretching to 10 or 12. At least five carriers have quit, and the post office has banned scheduled sick days for the rest of the year, carriers say.

“If we keep getting this volume, plus Christmas coming, we won’t survive,” one Bemidji post office employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her job. “We aren’t equipped for this.”

Mail carriers have “expressed a lot of concern about the volume of work,” Mayor Jorge Prince said after finishing his own breakfast at Raphael’s, a bustling diner lined with vintage cookie jars. But the Bemidji City Council has no jurisdiction over the U.S. Postal Service, and the same goes for the local fire marshal, who was called in last Monday because the Amazon packages were stacked precariously high.

Dennis Nelson, a veteran mail carrier, said he got so frustrated watching multiple co-workers “breaking down and crying” that he staged a symbolic strike earlier this month outside the post office where he has worked for more than 20 years.

“I have to do something,” Nelson said. “It feels like we should be wearing shirts that say ‘USPS: Brought to you by Amazon.com.’”

Bemidji is not the only place where postal workers say they have been overwhelmed by packages from Amazon, the ubiquitous e-commerce giant. Carriers and local officials say mail service has been disrupted in rural communities from Portland, Maine, to Washington state’s San Juan Islands.

The situation stems from a crisis at the Postal Service, which has lost $6.5 billion in the past year. The post office has had a contract with Amazon since 2013, when it started delivering packages on Sundays. But in recent years, that business has exploded as Amazon has increasingly come to rely on postal carriers to make “last-mile” deliveries in harder-to-reach rural locations.

The Postal Service considers the contract proprietary and has declined to disclose its terms. But U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has said publicly that “increasing package volume” — not just from Amazon, but from FedEx and UPS as well — is key to the mail service’s financial future. In a Nov. 14 speech to the Postal Service Board of Governors, DeJoy said he wants the post office to become the “preferred delivery provider in the nation.” And in recent years, the agency has reconfigured its nationwide network of mail-sorting plants, purchased an armada of eco-friendly delivery trucks and pressed a marketing campaign in service of that goal.

In bigger cities, Amazon has its own distribution network, which takes some of the pressure off the post office. But in rural areas, where carriers drive miles of lonely routes in their personal vehicles, the arrangement has caused problems.

In the mountains of Colorado, biologists in Crested Butte are struggling with the delay of time-sensitive samples, the Denver Post reported in September, while mail carriers in Carbondale say they are overwhelmed by Amazon packages. Other Minnesota towns including Brainerd and La Porte have been hit hard by Amazon in the past, carriers said. And in Maine, carriers organized a symbolic strike in protest of the Amazon onslaught a year ago — though a postal audit found that the delays were caused by staffing issues, not prioritizing packages.

In Bemidji, the mayor has complained to local members of Congress, who say their ability to control the post office is limited. Last week, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) sent a letter to DeJoy to ask about reports that “Amazon is interfering with timely deliveries and stretching the agency’s already-overburdened workers too thin.”

“As Postmaster General, you are responsible for ensuring that the Postal Service meets its service standards, and it is clear right now that things are not working as they should,” said the letter, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Post. “Entering into contracts that your system cannot support is a breach of your responsibilities.”

Angela Bye, the Postal Service district manager for North Dakota and Minnesota, declined to comment. Postal Service spokesperson David Partenheimer said the agency is unaware of any significant delivery issues in Bemidji. “Like any prudent business, we do not publicly discuss specifics of our business relationships,” he said.

Partenheimer defended the post office’s record in an email, while conceding “much work remains to be done.” He added that the post office’s aim is “to deliver mail and packages together in an integrated network.”

“The Postal Service is in its third year of the Delivering for America plan,” he said. “The organization continues its focus on improving service reliability … by modernizing the outmoded and aging postal network across the nation, operational stabilization, and new competitive product offerings for our customers.”

Amazon spokesperson Sam Stephenson said the company shares weekly forecasting data with the Postal Service, which “approves our forecasts.”

“We work directly with the USPS to balance our delivery needs with their available capacity,” Stephenson said. “We recognize that, like us, other major retailers, small businesses, and the communities they serve rely on the local USPS to deliver, which is why we’ll continue to collaborate on package volume each week and adjust as needed.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.

‘No way of keeping up’

In Bemidji, postal workers said they had been told that Amazon was coming to town for years. It finally happened one morning in early November, when the post office was flooded with thousands of Amazon boxes and carriers said they were told they all had to be delivered by the end of the day.

Carriers who previously had delivered dozens of small parcels a day plus paper mail suddenly had to deliver between 300 and 500 boxes that they said had previously been handled by UPS. One mail carrier said his mail truck was so full of packages he could barely see out the left window. Some boxes were so big they couldn’t fit into mail vehicles. Those were stored on-site for customer pickup in an area that soon was overflowing.

For all the extra work, mail carriers weren’t making much more money. Rural mail carriers are paid only for the amount of time the post office estimates it will take them to finish their jobs. And in Bemidji, the routes had been reevaluated in October, just before Amazon changed everything.

As a result, “we’re giving away tons of free labor,” said Nelson, the carrier who staged the symbolic strike on Nov. 13. Though mail carriers aren’t legally allowed to strike — their union signed away that right more than 100 years ago — others joined him in the pre-dawn chill, carrying signs with slogans such as “USPS belongs to the people, not Amazon.”

Mail carriers take their jobs seriously — they take an oath of office upon assuming their roles — and feel badly when the mail doesn’t get to people, said three Bemidji postal workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs.

“It’s hard to love a job when you watch everyone rely on you and you can’t help them,” one said.

‘Private business takes priority’

Mel Milender, treasurer of the Eckles Township Rural Fire Association, said the chaos at the post office has been “extremely impactful.” After local governments assured him $400,000 in checks were in the mail to help cover the recent purchase of $1.3 million in fire equipment, Milender said, the checks were nowhere to be found.

“We didn’t get mail for three days,” Milender said. “And we had to pay bills.”

When Milender called the post office, he said, “They told me that they had to take this contract with Amazon, and that people were quitting, and they didn’t have people to deliver the mail and they would get to me when they could.”

Others residents said they have been waiting on bills, cards from their grandchildren and insurance payments. Though Chris Katko and his wife live just six blocks from the Bemidji post office, they, too, experienced delays, including on time-sensitive hospital bills, Katko said.

When the proprietors of Patterson’s, a local haberdashery, saw their mail carrier, Jay, laden with Amazon packages, they said they worried about him — but also about the checks they were mailing to vendors. A local bookkeeper started driving 20 miles into town to visit the post office, her husband said, because “the mail can’t be trusted.”

Mark Fuller, a local engineer, said he worries about getting payments from clients on time. “If we’re waiting on, you know, [$50,000 or $80,000] or $100,000 and we’re paying 9.75 percent interest on the line of credit, that can be pretty impactful over time,” said Fuller, who prefers checks to electronic payments to avoid high fees.

Milender knows the local carriers are working hard, he said, but he thinks the post office could have done things differently.

“I can’t believe a private business takes priority over the public,” he said. “What bothers me most is that we had no forewarning. The U.S. Postal Service knew that they accepted that contract and should have made sure that they made everybody aware of it.”

At Raphael’s, it’s clear people want the problem fixed. A group of retired schoolteachers who meet there twice a week were discussing how it’s now faster to order their book club picks from Amazon than from the local bookstore. The mail, they said, is now so slow they call it “the Pony Express.”

“There are times when we don’t even get the mail,” said Judy Phillips, a retired English teacher, because “they have to deliver the Amazon.”

Hearing their conversation, an older gentleman who declined to give his name stopped by their table to share his own sense of outrage.

Amazon “packages take priority over first-class mail,” the man said, adding: “That’s not right.”