Postal Problems

An LA post office loading dock this week. Photo courtesy Dave Cabusora.



Dave “Tuffy” Cabusora has sold pop art online for ten years—full-time since 2017. He was afraid he might be driven out of business due to the pandemic and rising unemployment, but oddly enough, sales are up more than 100 percent this year over last.

Now he has other concerns. Tuffy has mailed, on average, forty packages per week since Covid hit. Though alarms were being sounded in the press about United States Postal Service (USPS) understaffing back in March, post offices in Los Angeles, where Tuffy lives, were handling record amounts of mail—”multiple times the amount of Christmas mail every month”—with few delays.

“All the bad stuff that has happened with the post office coincided with [Postmaster General Louis] DeJoy, not Covid,” he says.

The start of July, Tuffy noticed two things: packages coming to him from overseas were suddenly being delivered not just slower, but well past their 30-day late-complaint window. One package mailed from Germany on June 16 arrived just this Monday. He had expected it in two weeks. Tracking has still not been updated to show it was delivered.

He also began getting his first questions from customers.

“For 10 years I used the USPS, and they were incredibly reliable,” he says. “Once every six months a package would go astray, and I would look at the tracking. The box would be in Texas, when it was supposed to be in New York. I’d ask, and USPS would say, ‘We got it,’ and it would get there only a couple days late.

“All of a sudden, some stuff was not even showing up. Tracking showed it being in the distribution center, then nothing for two weeks. Customers were emailing, ‘Where’s my package?’ Priority Mail is usually is one- to three-days. Suddenly, it’s two weeks, and packages don’t even exist in the system.”

He shipped one box to New York July 25; it arrived August 15. Many of his mailed packages were shown as “in transit, will arrive late.” He used the Postal Service’s web form to find out what was going on.

“They sent me a hysterical email, a form letter with one personalized paragraph in it. It said something like, ‘Well, you know there’s not much we can do. It’s on its way. I’m closing the case.’ The system showed they had opened the case and closed it three days later. The package sat another week.”

He says customers have been surprisingly understanding, but it makes him nervous, especially on more expensive purchases. “I seldom have an issue; all of a sudden I had 10 packages in limbo across the United States.

“I can’t have these uncertainties,” he says, “and customers asking, ‘Where’s my $2,000 order?’”

He explains that on all the websites he uses, he sets expectations for handling and shipping times, then has to meet them. He is grateful that eBay at least has, for the first time ever, stopped “dinging” sellers for not meeting expectations, an indication of how unusual the circumstances are.

Another problem, he says, is that “USPS is the greatest deal around. Even if we take away reliability, they are the cheapest, and the post office is kinder to packages than Fedex. With USPS, he says, all Priority shipping supplies are free, but delivery of them has stopped.

“The post office also offers two kinds of insurance, without limits, which are not that expensive. Priority Mail up to $100 worth is free. Third-party carriers don’t actually have insurance. You declare your item’s value, but they’re explicit that this is not insurance, so I’m not sure how often they pay out for damage or loss.”

Tuffy says he had to buy $2,500 of his own insurance, which included a 10 percent rider for shipping if using FedEx or UPS. A package sent by UPS cost him $90 that would have cost $30 by USPS.

The most disturbing thing to him, in all this, has been the physical evidence of dysfunction at the post office where he drops his packages for shipment. He tried putting mail through a slot this week and heard someone shouting, “Stop! Stop! Don’t put that in here—put them on the loading dock.”

He says the loading dock was huge, serviced by five or six vans at once. There were wire bins there, 6x6x7 feet, one each for Media Mail, First Class, Priority, Parcel Select, and Priority Oversize. Usually, he says, packages put in them would be gone the next day. Now, the bins remain unemptied for days at a time, and the inside of the post office, big as a warehouse, appears to be filled with bins of mail too.

“Early last week it started getting bad,” he says. “Today, there was literally no more room, not even for more empty bins. The worker said they hadn’t got any out today.”

He does not blame the workers. “There’s always been a kind of honor with postal workers, or at least rules about getting mail out. None of this is their fault.”

It is a time for paranoia and theories. His is that “they’re moving Express and First-Class mail first, which contains things like paychecks. Their dirty little secret is that Priority Mail is not actually guaranteed. I had switched to ordering my medicine from a place 10 miles from my home. It took two weeks to get to me.”

He says one thing about the situation now does remind him of when Covid began. The post office told him back in March and April that they had so much mail that it had filled all their trucks, and whatever fit, fit. They had to prioritize and hope to catch up.

“It was an interesting explanation of how loading docks can slow down more and more and more,” he says. But the only way out of it then was overtime.

He hopes that DeJoy’s recent claim, after being put on the spot, that he will authorize overtime as needed will get things back on track. Before DeJoy, postal trucks made two stops at Tuffy’s house, every day. That stopped a month ago.

“The only way it was getting through on time was overtime, and if he doesn’t authorize more, nothing will get fixed. There’s a mountain of mail, and they need even more people to fix the problem than they needed when they were merely understaffed. I hate to ascribe this level of conspiracy to it, but do you think he knew that if he fucked it up for a month the damage would last six months?

“My post office is out of room. Where’s the mail gonna go?”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.