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‘We know’: Postal Service acknowledges mail problems in Colorado mountain towns

Some Colorado towns prepare to sue to make the post office prioritize mail over last-mile deliveries for Amazon
Luis Gaspar of Lake and Company uses a cart from the post office to carry a load of packages to the store across the street Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Steamboat Springs. Lake and Company has a brick and mortar store. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Paula Black realized what a sad state her local Steamboat Springs post office was in when she started seeing junk mail piles avalanching to the floor from tables in the lobby. She noticed cobwebs draping corners, dust coating everything and parts hanging off old heaters.

So, she called on some friends to meet her at the post office with brooms, dust rags and trash bags last Saturday afternoon when the counter was closed and mailbox traffic minimal. They spiffed up the lobby so that it no longer looked like a place that had been without custodial services for months.

“I took a teeny, tiny nibble at solving one of the problems here, but I think it is a shame that I am cleaning a federal building for free,” said Black, a retiree who has lived in Steamboat Springs for half a century and never seen the town’s post office in such a state. She has now organized a twice-weekly volunteer cleaning crew to tackle the mess until the U.S. Postal Service can hire someone to do it.

If only such a crew could as easily tackle the mountains of postal woes that have continued to pile up faster than discarded mail and undelivered parcels in post offices across Colorado.

Towns that have been pleading for the past several years for relief from long lines, weekslong mail delays, lost mail, short staffs, and spotty – or no – hours of operation, have seen few improvements. Some problems have multiplied. And the number of communities and neighborhoods with complaints have jumped. At least one town has taken steps to sue the Postal Service, and half a dozen other towns plan to join in that effort.

“The system is broken, obviously. And I don’t know what the solution is,” said Sherry Yates, who operates Yates Yachts charter business out of Steamboat Springs and finally found some envelopes in her post office box this week after not receiving any business or personal mail for three weeks in January.

James Boxrud has the tough job of being a regional spokesperson for the Postal Service in an unprecedented era of PO’d customers, and he offered a mea culpa rather than trying to downplay these problems.

“We know we have not met the service expectations of the community and are working hard to restore the respect of the public,” Boxrud wrote in an email response to questions.

“Mail for us is a maybe. It is no longer an absolute.”

Postal Service customers across the political spectrum are losing faith in the long-sacrosanct government delivery of mail. The U.S. Postal Service promised just a year ago as part of the Postal Service Reform Act that delivery would improve and the agency would be more transparent about its problems. Two years ago, newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy touted a 10-year plan to change the Postal Service from an agency in crisis to one that is high performing.

Six months ago, DeJoy told the American Enterprise Institute in a rousing speech that the Postal Service has moved “to a status of stability.”

Steamboat Springs resident Nancy Mucklow leaves the post office location with packages. The average wait time to deliver and pick up packages is between 20 to 40 minutes, locals say. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The Postal Service released data last week touting progress. The agency’s metrics show that the average time for delivery nationwide is 2.5 days. The release went on to say that 90.8% of first-class mail is delivered on time, as is 93.9% of marketing mail, and 84.7% of periodicals.

Buena Vista retiree Merilee Daugherty laughs about those brags and numbers.

“Mail for us is a maybe,” she said. “It is no longer an absolute.”

Daugherty is one of hundreds of postal patrons in Colorado who have turned to their elected representatives to complain because gripes to the Postal Service at the local and national level have too often gone into the same black hole as too much of the mail.

For several years, those officials have been firing off letters to DeJoy and to regional managers, ripping the poor service and begging for action.

“My office has consistently received a steady stream of complaints and pleas for help,” said U.S. Rep Joe Neguse, a Democrat, whose 2nd Congressional District takes in Summit, Eagle, Grand and Routt counties, where problems have been especially dire. “Notwithstanding the herculean efforts of the front-line postal workers at the locations above, these rural mountain communities are simply not receiving a level of service even close to what the district management of USPS is required to provide.”

Newly sworn-in U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat, has jumped on the issue in her 7th Congressional District, which includes the towns of Buena Vista and Twin Lakes, where mail problems have also been particularly dire.

“This issue did not occur overnight and has been ongoing for several years,” Pettersen said to DeJoy.

Republican Third District U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert reminded DeJoy in a letter outlining ongoing problems in her Florida-size district that “given the recent $50 billion allocation from Congress, there are resources available to meet this obligation to rural customers.”

Sen. Michael Bennet’s office has been working on the problem for several years. Sen. John Hickenlooper has joined in the push for postal accountability. Both are Democrats.

The local and federal officials are all working together on the immediate crisis and on the long-term solution that would include securing affordable housing to help retain employees.

All this political cage-rattling ironically is happening in a state where the historic importance of mail delivery is going to be celebrated this month. Old Bent’s Fort near La Junta has organized an all-day mail-focused event Feb. 18 that will highlight why “protecting the mail was so important for business and morale!”

Announcements for the event were emailed, not sent through the post office.

It’s not the counter help or carriers, it’s the agency

Nearly 150 years after Bent’s Fort mail carriers braved rain, snow and all those other boilerplate mail challenges, the problems tied to the popularity of Colorado’s mountain towns continue to stack up.

The USPS can’t hire enough workers in spite of holding job fairs where the paid holiday, health care, sick leave and retirement benefits are dangled for prospective workers.

Still, the pay of more than $24 per hour won’t cover skyrocketing housing costs in some communities. Boxrud said the pandemic, the added stress of so much e-commerce and the general national employment challenges exacerbated the search for employees for jobs that once were considered plum employment opportunities.

Those intrepid postal workers who have not quit and are trying to carry on under the onus of staff shortages win praise from patrons. Customers say they are unhappy with the agency but don’t blame the local workers who are still trying to smile from behind service counters.

“The local workers are doing all they can,” Black said. “They are working 12- to 16-hour days. I feel so bad for them.”

Steamboat Springs Post Office clerk, Mary Gerken, right, listens to a comment on mail while delivering packages to mailboxes on Thursday. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The Postal Service has been shuffling around those workers to try to fill gaps, but there are so many gaps now that the effort is about as effective as trying to plug a leaky dam. Boxrud said four “borrowed” postal employees from Colorado Springs have been able to get the mail delivery back on track in Buena Vista. But that is a temporary fix until new hires are made.

Dillon, Silverthorne and Steamboat Springs are short-staffed and also lacking several truck drivers who contract with the Postal Service to get mail and packages from town to town, and who recently quit. The Postal Service has been sending a few additional workers to those offices for short stints, but that hasn’t been enough to stay current with the mail delivery. Boxrud said the Postal Service has sent out an SOS to surrounding states for additional employees to help stabilize mail delivery in parts of Colorado.

Bills are going undelivered and unpaid

If there was a booby prize for the most recent postal woes in a single community, Steamboat Springs takes it, hands down.

Besides the grubby state of the post office, delivery in that northern part of the state has been delayed weeks in some areas, a situation that hasn’t been helped by record amounts of snowfall.

Some entire Steamboat neighborhoods and nearby ranching communities haven’t seen even a piece of junk mail since the first of the year. Postal patrons who have tried turning to mail tracking apps have run into digital black holes as important bills and payments have made mysterious journeys across the country on their way to Colorado. Businesses have been floundering to keep their books without reliable bill delivery or checks coming in.

Workers clear thick ice from the parking lot at the post office in Steamboat Springs on Jan. 27.,. 2023. Rough conditions earlier sent numerous vehicles to local repair shops with body damage from sliding into mailboxes. (Shannon Lukens/Steamboat Radio)

Those attempting to drop off mail last week weren’t just inconvenienced by the lack of workers at the post office. They ran into an actual hazard. The poorly plowed post office parking lot turned into a demolition zone as half a dozen vehicles were damaged when they were caught in icy ruts and slammed into the drop box.

Less than a week later, two delivery trucks got stuck behind the post office and clogged traffic heading to the school on a main road.

“Everything is a mess now,” said Rebecca Boucha who suffered $2,600 of vehicle damage when she went to drop off mail and left with a hole punched in the side of her car and a shattered light. Similar damage happened to at least five other vehicles that day.

Terry Paulsen, who owns Russell’s Auto Salon, saw a surge in business that day, but he would be happier to see the post office problems solved.

He sent a bill to a dealership in Denver last month and was left wondering why the business wasn’t paying. Sleuthing on his part showed the invoice had never arrived in Denver. He tracked it down in Florida.

A relative of Paulsen’s recently told him that he hasn’t received mail at his ranch outside Steamboat since Jan. 1. He told Paulsen he is worried because he knows there are bills floating around out there somewhere that need to be paid.

“Retail counter is closed until further notice”

The town of Buena Vista is a close runner-up for PO’d postal customers. One problem was solved last summer when the Postal Service was ordered to stop charging residents for post office boxes after a long row about the legality of that. By law, if residents don’t have an option for mail delivery at their residences, they must be provided a free post office box.

For years, Buena Vista residents had been paying as much as $166 per month to receive their mail.

Buena’s Vista’s post office is now limping by with half a staff augmented by the occasional outside USPS staff.

In Buena Vista, Shirley Dale unloads a package inside the local post office to be shipped on a Tuesday afternoon in 2022. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Daugherty, a retiree who has lived in Buena Vista for a decade, said she was excited this week because she received mail for two days in a row after not getting any for two weeks. She lives in a retirement community with 49 homes. None of them received any mail for the same time period. That includes no local reporting on news like the post office quandary. The Chaffee County Times newspaper normally goes in boxes every Thursday.

Daugherty’s missing mail included a passport renewal she had sent by certified mail at the end of December. Through a tracking app, she watched as her old passport and her application left Denver on Jan. 1 bound for Philadelphia. Then – nothing. The postal tracking app kept telling her the status of her mailing was “unavailable.” Finally, on Jan 30, after a month worrying that someone might be making criminal use of her passport, she received notice that it had arrived at its destination.

The problem is worse in rural areas, but even more metropolitan areas have had troubles lately. Thornton has had mail delivery only two days a week in certain neighborhoods. Mail in West Highland has been coming every other day and late at night. Washington Park has had spotty delivery. So has Lafayette.

Some deliveries in Grand Junction were delayed recently after a carrier annex devolved into disarray, according to an anonymous worker there who spilled about the problems to local news blogger Anne Landman. Landman had previously disclosed problems at a Grand Junction sorting annex in the summer of 2020. A brand new sorting machine was dumped in a heap in an outside dumpster just days after it was set up – and weeks after DeJoy vowed to cut the use of sorting machines.

Colorado City, south of Pueblo, went without its contract post office for nearly six weeks this summer after the contractor who ran it quit, reportedly because contracts weren’t being honored by the Postal Service. Residents had to drive 30 minutes to Pueblo for their mail.

How is mail service going now?

“As smooth as can be,” said Colorado City Metropolitan district receptionist Cristy Adams after a lengthy pause.

The western Mesa County town of Mack can also claim high standing in the postal-problem roster.

A sign went up in the window of the tiny Mack post office the final day of 2022: “Retail counter is closed until further notice.” Patrons who called seeking more information got a recorded message directing them to take their post office business to the closest towns of Fruita and Loma. It ends with a cheery “Sorry for any inconvenience. Have a wonderful day.”

Over the Wyoming border, which is in the same postal management service area as Colorado, Cheyenne struggled through no mail delivery for a week around Christmas. The mail stopped after 12 pallets of Amazon packages were dropped off in one day. Postal workers had to drop other work to help sort through 13,000 parcels. Workers at the sorting center in Grand Junction also blamed a big package dump for the problems there.

Crested Butte knows all about the Amazon effect on a rural post office not designed to deliver mounds of e-commerce packages.

Crested Butte Town Manager Dara MacDonald has had to become a de facto leader in rural efforts to get the USPS to help untangle the package-delivery conundrum and its effect on mail because she has been working on it for years. MacDonald determined early on when complaints coming to town offices from frozen postal patrons waiting hours in outside lines that Amazon packages the Postal Service is obliged to deliver “the last mile” had clogged the system.

After years of entreaties to Amazon and the Postal Service, MacDonald recently received the go-ahead from her town’s board to retain an attorney and pursue legal action.

MacDonald also serves as the chair of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, and three other members of that organization – Silverthorne, Breckenridge and Avon – have tentatively committed to join that effort. Eagle, Parachute, Buena Vista, Snowmass Village and Steamboat Springs will be taking up the matter at town board meetings in coming weeks.

“Unfortunately, there are many tales of service disruptions, limited capacity and long lines from around the Western Slope,” MacDonald wrote in an email. “Likewise, we all have stories of many calls, emails and letters that have been sent, and offers of assistant that have been made in an attempt to push USPS toward better service in our communities.”

Many fingers are still pointed at Louis DeJoy

USPS has been touting new systems for complaints, including multiple social media avenues embraced by a nearly 250-year-old agency that represents the country’s largest physical infrastructure outside of the military.

The USPS Help Twitter thread is mostly filled with recruitment ads, stamp sales and warnings about mail theft.

The USPS tracking site app doesn’t work well, according to patrons who say their mail disappears for long stretches. A website for USPS “disruption information” shows no service-related problems in Colorado at this time.

A USPS Office of Inspector General Twitter handle has tweeted about reports of problems around the country, but links to read more about those problems default to “page not found.”

Attempts by USPS to use humor on Twitter have fallen flat with some followers who respond negatively to a tweet like, “The key to telling mail carrier jokes is a good delivery.”

“Humor us and then fire DeJoy,” one follower responded.

The fingers of disgruntled postal patrons keep pointing at DeJoy.

DeJoy was appointed by then-President Donald Trump via his USPS Board of Governors in 2020 following a 14-year period when the Postal Service lost $87 billion.

DeJoy, who had been the CEO of a logistics and freight business peripherally associated with the Postal Service, was controversial from the beginning because of his Postal Service contracts and his status as a major Republican donor.

He immediately began taking measures that slowed mail delivery, including banning overtime and extra trips to make sure mail was delivered. He ordered that 600 sorting machines be dismantled. He called the resulting slowed mail delivery “unintended consequences” of his plan that would eventually improve mail service.

DeJoy claims that his 10-year reform plan for the Postal Service has already saved $90 billion. This summer he announced further cost-cutting measures, including the possibility of slashing 50,000 positions and closing 150 annexes over the next four years.

“We need to get rid of DeJoy,” said Daugherty, who started paying attention to national Postal Service news when her local post office melted down last summer. “We know he wants to get rid of the Postal Service.”

Meanwhile, Boxrud is in the midst of a tough effort to save the Postal Service in rural Colorado by adding to the ranks of post office employees.

“I would appreciate if you would mention our ongoing hiring needs,” he wrote in response to questions about USPS problems.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.