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‘The system is just overwhelmed’: Post office struggles with holiday deluge

The pandemic has boosted shipping volumes to holiday season levels all year. Then it got worse.

A UPS driver made deliveries on Beacon Hill. The Postal Service is especially strained this season as UPS and other delivery services have limits on what they will take from retailers, but the Postal Service takes all deliveries.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

If you haven’t already shipped your Christmas gifts, it may be too late to get them there on time.

The usual holiday crunch has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which long ago sent delivery services into hyperdrive. And the brunt of it is falling on the United States Postal Service, with reports of mail and package delays stacking up around the country.

Mary Woodall-Jappe of Ipswich sent two gifts to her son in Washington state on Dec. 7, paying extra for the two-day priority shipping. By Dec. 16, one had made it only as far as Nashua, N.H., according to the postal service’s tracking system; the other wasn’t registering at all.


“Christmas is the goal, and I sort of thought on the 7th there’d be plenty of time,” she said.

More than a week after sending the packages, she asked a manager at the Post Office whether there had been some kind of mistake. But the manager said, “The system is just overwhelmed,” Woodall-Jappe relayed.

While the entire delivery sector is strained this holiday season, experts and analysts say the Postal Service is especially challenged, because private carriers like UPS and FedEx have planned limits on shipping volumes from some retailers, and are declining to immediately accept packages outside those previously agreed upon volumes. That is likely pushing even more packages into the Postal Service, said Satish Jindel, president of ShipMatrix, a Pennsylvania-based software company that tracks shipping industry performance.

“While [customers] will find the Post Office is going to have lower performance than UPS and FedEx, it’s because they are getting those extra packages that UPS and FedEx are turning away, that the Post Office can’t say no to,” Jindel said.

The Postal Service fared well in the earlier stage of the holiday shopping season, according to ShipMatrix, which found that between Nov. 22 and Dec. 5, USPS achieved an on-time rate of 92.8 percent for parcel delivery. That trailed UPS and FedEx, but was still ahead of its performance over the same period at the beginning of the 2019 holiday season.


But because the overall number of packages is up considerably this season, the raw number of late packages was also much higher. And the Postal Service’s performance has since fallen off, with packages arriving on-time just 86.1 percent of the time this past week, according to ShipMatrix.

In fact, Postal Service spokesman Stephen Doherty said mail volume all through the pandemic has been running well above normal, to the point where it’s been close to holiday-season busy all year, and only got busier when the actual holidays arrived.

The surge is so unprecedented the agency isn’t even projecting volume, “other than we expect to see a record number of packages this year,” Doherty said.

It is impossible to tell whether UPS and FedEx policies are adding to the backlog, he added. But Postmaster General Louis DeJoy warned workers in a recent online video that the Postal Service “may be getting a lot of overflow” from competitors that are at capacity.

Compounding the issue further are “staffing shortages in individual facilities” as some postal workers stay home if they feel sick or otherwise need to quarantine, Doherty said, though those issues are mitigated somewhat by sending additional workers to those sites.

The Postal Service strain is causing noticeable hiccups for some small businesses that rely heavily on it.


Lauren Richardson, mail order manager for the Allston-based record label Run for Cover Records, said shipping through the Postal Service has been hit or miss. About 10 to 20 percent of packages have been late, she said, but some of those late ones were off by wide margins.

“It seems to vary a lot. Some things will get there fine, and others will take weeks,” Richardson said. “Everything seems to be getting there eventually, but it’s just taking longer.”

Some companies are trying to be proactive and lessen the disappointment of late gifts. Boston-based apparel company Sh*t That I Knit, which has seen shipping times more than double this holiday season, is including cheeky PDFs in order confirmation e-mails that gift givers can print out and share if the hat or blanket hasn’t arrived on time.

“We won’t really know until Christmas morning” how big the problems were, said Christina Fagan Pardy, the company’s founder. “We’re just trying to get ahead of it.”

The Postal Service faced similar concerns ahead of the 2020 election given the huge volumes of mail-in voting and President Trump’s attack on that process. State and local election officials urged voters to send ballots early, and there were ultimately no major reports of late-arriving ballots.

Nada Sanders, a supply chain expert at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, said capacity issues may persist well beyond the holidays — and perhaps even beyond the pandemic — if the sharp uptick in e-commerce sticks. She called on Congress to provide more funding to the USPS so it can keep up with demand long term.


“My concern with what happens with the supply chain is, you can only work at that level of maximum capacity for so long,” she said. “It’s not going to let up in the same way it has in the past.”

But for now, ahead of the holidays, some customers seem to have plenty of patience.

Brian Hoyt of Norfolk said he is resigned that a present for his wife — a memento from her hometown of Pittsburgh — won’t arrive by Christmas. But after spending 2020 depending on e-commerce, and now watching the complex logistical rollout of coronavirus vaccines, Hoyt said he has been overcome with appreciation for the people working in the shipping industry.

“That package will come. The joy of getting that video game, or that box of goods from a loved one, will be just as joyous on Jan. 1 as it will be on Dec. 25,” Hoyt said. “There is something bigger going on this year, and that’s certainly what we’ve tried to focus on in my home.”

Andy Rosen and Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this report.