Operational strains for Postal Service deliver difficulties for rural Missouri

A custom jewelry order from mom-and-pop shop Henley Jewelers in Eldon, postmarked to deliver the next day to New York, took over two weeks to arrive. Another order set to be overnighted just to St. Louis took more than a week.

The store’s co-owner, Dianne Henley, said the local post office in Eldon, a mid-Missouri town with a population of less than 5,000, has become shorthanded and overwhelmed by packages.

“We have found we can’t depend on an overnight shipment or even a two-day shipment,” Henley said. “We’ve grown up having mail and having the post office to go to and ship our packages, and then all of a sudden it’s not reliable. You have to rethink your promises to your customers.”

Norris (left) and Dianne Henley stand outside their Eldon business, which has faced shipping delays from the Postal Service. | Courtesy of Joel Angel Juarez

Henley and her local business, which dates back to 1948, are not alone in being affected by the shortfalls and financial strains facing the U.S. Postal Service. The service has been under siege even more amid the COVID-19 pandemic as package volumes have ramped up and workforce infections have created more backlogs.

Rural Americans are disproportionately affected by the delays facing the system as delivery options are sparser in rural areas. The Postal Service serves as a lifeline for rural Missourians like Henley who rely on its services to conduct business.

The Postal Service reported record package volume, a 25% increase, in the first quarter of its 2021 fiscal year.

“They handle the last mile for a lot of other shippers — FedEx, UPS, Amazon — to deliver that last mile,” said Stephen Kearney, executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers and a former Postal Service senior executive. “We need every capacity we can get, including the Postal Service.”

Henley said the Eldon post office gets a good amount of Amazon packages to deliver. “So even those things have overwhelmed the post office as well,” she said.

The Postal Service dates back to before the Declaration of Independence was even signed, when Benjamin Franklin was appointed postmaster general in 1775. Today, the over-200-year-old system faces a deepening financial hole amid ongoing political tensions. Still, the public continues to view the service in a positive light. A Pew Research Center survey released last year found 91% of respondents have a favorable view of the Postal Service, higher than any other federal agency.

The Postal Service, a constitutionally mandated government agency, has seen net losses since the 2007 economic recession. Last year, the agency saw a $9.2 billion net loss, according to U.S. Postal Service data. And politicians are expecting about $160 billion in losses over the next 10 years, Kearney said.

Prior to the economic recession in 2020, John McHugh, chairman of the Package Coalition, an advocacy group for retailers that rely on the mail service, said the U.S. economy was growing robustly. McHugh, who is also a former Republican congressman from New York, said this was due in large part to small businesses being able to open and operate in rural settings, using the Postal Service to carry out business effectively and affordably.

“If that’s not operating well, then it’s a significant blow to what we all hope will be a robust economic recovery in this nation,” McHugh said. “But it’s also an economic blow, of course, to those businesses who have few other meaningful choices, and to the rural communities in which they operate.”

Aside from local business, rural communities also rely on the Postal Service for their bills, news, medications, electricity and more.

“If you are required to — as many insurance plans do require — receive your prescription medicine by mail, the effect of the Postal Service can be literally a matter of life and death,” McHugh said.

Across Missouri, small, weekly newspapers also rely on the system as the most cost-efficient way to deliver their papers to readers. Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, said he has heard many complaints of papers being delivered late, particularly in the Kansas City area.

“It’s really their only option,” Maassen said. “And for these rural communities, that’s a lot of times the only way they get their news, and in some areas, they don’t have a local television station or local radio station that’s reporting on what’s going on. They rely on their newspaper to get this information out, and if it’s delayed, it puts a burden on the individual entity that’s trying to put the news out.”

Those affected by the financial strain facing the system also include its employees. More than 600,000 Americans, including about 15,000 in Missouri, currently work for the Postal Service, according to data from the publication Governing. The Postal Service has more than 30,000 locations, and post offices like the ones in Barnett and Olean, which are near Eldon, operate on reduced schedules of four hours and two hours a day, respectively.

The post office in Eldon is part of a nationwide network of more than 30,000 locations and 600,000 employees. | Kelly Dereuck/Missouri Business Alert

While politicians like former President Donald Trump have called the Postal Service a “joke” and pushed for its privatization, other people, like McHugh and Kearney, have advocated to save the service.

Postmaster General and CEO Louis DeJoy, a major GOP donor, presented a new strategic, 10-year plan in late March, suggesting a focus on package deliveries over mail, as well as higher postage prices, shortened post office hours and even longer delivery times. As President Joe Biden nominated two Democrats and an Independent to the Postal Service Board of Governors, Democrats are pushing for DeJoy to resign.

“DeJoy knows that they need to change their network,” Kearney said. “The problem is there are a lot of interests involved when he releases his plan. People will be opposed to parts of it, and members of Congress will be opposed to parts of it. So it’ll be a big question mark, as to whether he’s able to implement the plan.”

McHugh said the system needs to see its operations more as a service than a business.

“The Postal Service’s charges are not to optimize revenues,” McHugh said, “but rather to serve the country delivering packages and mail to over 160 million delivery points.”

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