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Unparalleled volume near holiday adds long delays to shipping

Shipping delays that were foreseen months ago have begun to affect Maine businesses and consumers as Christmas fast approaches, bringing an avalanche of packages that is testing the capacity of the system and its workers.

“People are working as hard as they can,” said Chris Brown, chief financial officer for Bull Moose, the Maine-based music, video and gaming retailer. “If stuff isn’t making it, it’s because carriers are overwhelmed with volume or because of staffing problems from the pandemic. It’s not for lack of effort.”

Across the country, the United States Postal Service, as well as commercial shipping companies, have been dealing with unprecedented volume since the pandemic began. Add in the holiday season – especially one that featured far less in-person shopping – and the system has been stretched to its limits, leading to long hours for postal workers, tracking problems for some packages and businesses having to tell customers to be patient.

“FedEx and UPS sort of cut everyone off, now they are giving us their overflow because we don’t turn anyone down,” said Mark Seitz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 92, the union that represents Maine’s USPS workers. “Typically, at Christmastime, we’ll have carriers out until 7 or 8 at night. Now, it’s 10 or 11.”

According to ShipMatrix, which analyzes delivery schedules from more than 100,000 shipping locations across the country, FedEx, UPS and the postal service all have experienced significant shipping delays this month, primarily due to excessive volume.

Between Dec. 6-12, UPS delivered 96.1 percent of its parcels on time, FedEx was 93.9 percent on time and the postal service was at 87.5 percent. Each saw its performance slip from Dec. 13-17 – a period that included the snowstorm that blanketed the Northeast on Thursday – with UPS 94.9 percent on time, FedEx at 92.1 percent and the postal service at 86.1 percent.

Seitz said Maine’s carriers in some cases simply can’t fit all the parcels in their mail trucks and have to go back and load more packages, sometimes more than once. He said regular mail, including bills and payments, is less impacted because it doesn’t take up as much space.

“Typically, we’re restricted to 12-hour days but that’s waived in the month of December,” he said.

Most times, employees can volunteer for overtime hours. Now, it’s essentially mandatory.

“Of course, we worry about their safety. We always see slips and falls this time of year in Maine, but then you factor in fatigue from working such long hours.”

Stephen Doherty, regional spokesman for USPS, said the uncertainty of the pandemic has made predictions near impossible.

“While we can typically predict weekly volumes based on past trends, this year is an anomaly and we did not have any volume forecasts other than we expected to see a record number of packages this year,” he said in an email. “For that reason, we’ve been encouraging customers all along to get any gift items in the mail as early as possible to beat the last-minute rush. In addition to our issues related to record volume and the pandemic, capacity limits with airlifts and trucking and limitations by some of our international counterparts have added to some delivery times.”

Doherty agreed that USPS workers are under a lot of stress. The pandemic hasn’t spared the federal agency – among more than 644,000 employees, 27,599 have tested positive for COVID-19, which has created workforce shortages.

“It’s important for your readers to know that every piece of equipment and every truck is being used every single day,” he said. “Mail moves into and out of each facility daily. All of our equipment is running at capacity daily. In these unprecedented times, and a year with significant volume increases, we continue to flex our available resources to meet the demand within a finite number of resources available to us.”

Another issue that has emerged is inconsistent tracking. Businesses have reported that in many cases, packages are not being scanned at every stop, which means consumers might not know exactly where a parcel is along the line.

“They are supposed to be scanned everywhere,” Seitz said. “But I’m sure it happens that that step is missed sometimes as people are trying to get stuff out the door.”

Maine businesses have been planning for the expected shipping delays for weeks now and are taking them in stride.

Josh Christie, who owns Print: A Bookstore in Portland, said while the USPS deadline for packages to arrive before Christmas was Dec. 15, his store communicated to customers a date of Dec. 10. He said even before the holiday season, parcels were taking longer to ship, from 4-10 days to two weeks or more in some cases. There have been other strange things happening with shipping as well. Christie said on more than one occasion, he’s had a customer from across town order a book that will travel from his shop all the way to South Carolina before coming back several days later.


“There may be a logistical reason for that, but I can’t imagine a good one,” he said.

Now that the deadline for shipping before Christmas has passed, Christie said he’s processed a lot of curbside pickup orders.

Julie Roberts, who with her husband owns Coastal Maine Popcorn Co. in Boothbay Harbor, said her business has been seeing heavy delays both through the U.S. Postal Service and UPS. It was enough for her to put a warning to customers on the website.

“We’ve had to tell customers that we can’t guarantee what the postal service is going to do,” she said. “But we’re very supportive of those workers. When you see your local drivers out there still delivering at 9:30 at night, that’s pretty telling.”

Roberts said anyone who’s upset about delays needs to “lighten up,” especially in 2020.

“I tell people that if your Christmas happiness is based on whether a package shows up, maybe you need to rethink what Christmas is,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Press Herald

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