Audrey Bergin was shocked when she saw a yellow postcard in her mailbox informing her that if she did not respond to a jury summons questionnaire, she faced a $1,000 fine or even jail.
The warning was the first she heard about a summons.
“That was kind of concerning,” said the Hampden resident, “and led me to think, ‘what else are we not getting in the mail?’”
Bergin is among a legion of Baltimore-area residents who continue to report lost or delayed mail more than a year after a controversial Trump-era official began major changes at the United States Postal Service. Mail delivery in the Baltimore region continues to lag the nation and is so poor that the USPS inspector general has launched a targeted investigation. Federal and local political leaders are grappling to address the concerns of their constituents and point to staffing as a major contributor.
“There’s definitely an issue,” said Bridget Miller, also of Hampden. “That’s mainly why I changed everything over, like my bills and stuff. I was scared I wasn’t going to pay one. So, I get them either emailed or they take it out of my checking account.”
But Miller still has missing documents from Baltimore City related to her property taxes.
“They’re telling me they mailed a letter,” she said. “I’ve gotten nothing, not one notification or anything for that.”
The Baltimore region – which for postal delivery services nearly all of the state except for the Washington suburbs and Southern Maryland – has consistently scored among the lowest in the country for on-time delivery, according to the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General.
The office created an online performance tracker to monitor on-time delivery across the country. The Baltimore district reported 61.7 percent on-time during the second quarter of 2021, it’s currently tracking at 80.8 percent to date for the third quarter.
The post office on-time targets for the region are closer to 90 percent.
The Inspector General opened a national investigation earlier this year following complaints related to on-time delivery. The postal service considers first class mail “on-time” when it arrives between one- to three-days.
Officials have cited the coronavirus pandemic as a major contributor to delays.
“This has been an extraordinary year of unprecedented challenges given the COVID-19 pandemic,” said USPS spokesperson Freda Sauter. “As a result, staffing is occasionally impacted and we thank our customers for their understanding and continued support.”
The agency grappled with an increase in volume while adapting its operations amid the new pandemic reality.
“It was really bad back around the (winter) holidays,” Bergin said. “There were two…Christmas packages that we didn’t receive. One came about a month later, and one didn’t come until February.”
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen has been investigating the issue and acknowledged that while the worst occurred in late 2020 and early 2021, “there’s still unacceptable delays.”
“We heard from seniors waiting and waiting for critical medications,” he said. “We heard from lots of folks who are living paycheck to paycheck, who got late fees, not because they had done anything wrong, but because the mail delivered their payments late.
“Small business owners who were trying to deliver Christmas orders or holiday orders on time and it took them in some cases months to get to their destinations.”
Van Hollen urged officals to resolve delays during a June congressional hearing he organized.
The senator pointed to issues following the appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General in May 2020, and the controversial changes the Trump-era leader made to the service last year.
“There was a big national problem because of everything from reducing different mail sorting machines to not allowing the trucks to leave until they were completely filled, and things got way behind,” Van Hollen said.
Since then, staffing shortages have contributed significantly to delays in Maryland, Van Hollen said. The postal service intends to hire at least 300 carriers throughout Maryland and D.C. and is hosting job fairs throughout the region to help fill staffing gaps.
“A big problem here is understaffing, and when you’ve got an understaffing issue the answers obviously hire up and hire on an emergency basis, provide more overtime,” the senator said.
Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos has also been looking into postal operations after fielding numerous complaints.
“Problems with the 20211 and 20218 (ZIP codes) had been rampant even before COVID, and it just got worse,” she said.
Ramos acknowledged there isn’t much a city councilperson can do to address issues with a federal agency, but after fielding so many complaints from residents she teamed up with Van Hollen to hold a public meeting.
“I finally said ‘Can we do a meeting with post office officials, the Baltimore director and regional director and tell them what’s really going on here?’” Ramos said.
More than 80 constituents joined the virtual meeting to air grievances. Residents were most concerned about bills, paychecks and medications being delayed or not delivered at all, her office said.
Many residents have used a USPS tool called Informed Delivery, which provides information on what mail has been sorted at the regional facility and is headed to the mailbox, but mail items do not come for months if ever, according to those at the meeting.
“We can see when mail should be arriving,” said city resident Eugene Green. “You go three to four days with nothing, and then you’ll get one day where a lot of stuff is just stuffed into the mailbox.”
Residents also complained about the condition of the post office. Miller said she no longer visits the Hampden post office because the facility is always out of stamps.
“It was shocking to me that they didn’t know some of these things were happening in their post offices,” Ramos said, adding that officials promised issues would be resolved by the end of July.
Another meeting between officials and residents is scheduled for Sept. 28.
“I do think it stems from the top, you see other majority-black cities where this is happening, that tells me that DeJoy is not giving the right resources to the places that need it the most,” Ramos said. “They are ignoring our cities; that in itself is shameful. I think it’s terrifying what people are going through to just get the basics through the mail. It’s not fair to our city to be treated this way.”
Democrats in Congress are working to fill positions on the USPS oversight board which could lead to a change in agency leadership, according to Van Hollen.
“I hope the fact that there is an investigation into the quality and delivery process is causing the Baltimore postal managers to address the problem,” Van Hollen said.
“They’re now having a federal spotlight shown on the Baltimore postal system. And so, they should be looking everywhere to fix this problem and to fix it now.”