By DOUG WILSONHerald-Whig Senior Writer
Letter carrier Terry Harrison finished up a mail delivery route in Quincy after dark last Wednesday.
It was far from the first time that has happened during Harrison's career, especially during the winter months, when the sun sets before 5 p.m. Yet late deliveries, with letter carriers coming back to the Post Office as late as 7 p.m., have become routine this year.
Quincy Postmaster Susan Dorrough said deliveries take longer just before Christmas because of the heavy load of parcels. "We're probably running an hour over on routes because of parcels, (which are) up 25 percent from last year," Dorrough said.
However, the later hours for letter carriers began before the Christmas crunch, although several local postal workers declined to comment on the record. They had been advised that all contact with news organizations was to go through the U.S. Postal Service media relations staff.
"I'm not allowed to say anything," one said.
Other postal carriers, clerks and supervisors said delivery times are later due to the later arrival of mail trucks from distant postal processing facilities.
Quincy was home to a postal processing center that closed in February. At one time, it sorted mail originating in the 623, 634 and 635 ZIP Codes. Now the 623 mail is processed in Springfield, the 634 mail is processed in St. Louis and the 635 mail is processed in Columbia, Mo.
"Carriers used to start at 7 a.m. Now they're told to start at 8:30 a.m.," a longtime postal worker said.
Valerie Welsch, a spokesman for the Postal Service's Gateway District out of St. Louis, said later deliveries of mail are being blown out of proportion.
"In Alaska, the mail routes are done in the dark six months out of the year," Welsch said, adding that delivering mail in the dark "is not a safety concern in and of itself."
Employees are getting safety training, and Welsch said seasoned employees take their jobs and their safety seriously.
Welsch said the later start time is largely negated because letters are sorted into delivery sequence and are on trays that can be carried directly to a letter carrier's vehicle.
Quincy postal workers say they had delivery sequenced letters when the mail was sorted locally, and carriers still must sort through parcels and flats -- magazines, newspapers and other oversized items -- that are not in delivery sequence.
Another big driver of late delivery times is the tight staffing for letter carriers.
"We have the same amount of routes that we used to, but there are fewer carriers and they split routes among carriers when they finish a route and go do another route (drawing) overtime," a postal supervisor said.
There are 34 city routes and 13 rural routes. One worker said "five or six" more carriers are needed to fully staff each route and cover for sick days and vacations.
Many of the letter carriers in Quincy now are in their 40s and are career postal workers who lost their positions when the postal sorting station closed. They bid for the letter carrier jobs that often were held by contract workers who were usually younger. Some of the former sorting center workers also had enough seniority to bid for jobs as clerks, and those people then bid for carrier jobs.
Welsch said the elimination of postal sorting stations was a nationwide move to help the Postal Service lower its cost of operation.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told Congress that the Postal Service is heading in the right direction. The agency had a fiscal year 2012 shortfall of $15.9 billion. The 2013 deficit was $5 billion after the Postal Service closed nearly 290 postal sorting stations, changed delivery frequency, cut back hours on postal window service in many smaller offices and closed some facilities entirely.
"Certainly as letter volume has decreased, we have had to use our automated equipment more and expand the territory for which" sorting centers operate, Welsch said. "We have had to change our transportation network. Some times have had to be moved, and in some cases, it's been moved later."
Carriers have been dealing with the later delivery completion times as best they can. Several said it's just a part of the job, and they've made adjustments.
One carrier was thankful when a supervisor brought out a personal vehicle to pull a Postal Service vehicle out after snow and ice left the carrier stuck.
It all seemed to fit with the old Postal Service motto that is engraved on the James Farley Post Office in New York City: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."