Weeks of sub-freezing temperatures and record snowfall in the Chicago area have exacerbated poor mail service in Oak Park, Forest Park and surrounding communities, U.S. Postal Service authorities conceded Monday.
At a public meeting called by U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7th), USPS District Manager Peter Allen apologized to residents for slow delivery, lost mail and the lack of response to customers.
Allen got an earful from some 60 frustrated residents who gathered at the Oak Park Public Library's main branch on Lake Street – in view of the handsome Art Deco main post office just across Lake Street.
"There have been a number of service complaints, and I believe I owe you all an apology because I don't think we have been providing the service that you expected," he said.
Several residents at the meeting complained that the south Oak Park branch on Garfield Street, which serves the southern half of Oak Park and parts of Forest Park and River Forest, has had consistently late service and rude responses from workers questioned about delays. Angry postal customers complained that they often have a different carrier every day, that mail arrives days late and that they don't seem to be receiving all their mail when it does arrive. One woman said she waited days to receive her diabetes medication.
"I was not troubled by the delays caused by the polar vortex because I expected that," Oak Park resident Janice Mitchell-Bolling said, recalling the intense cold in early January. "My problem is the stuff going on two years prior to this."
Mitchell-Bolling said she gets late deliveries and frequently receives other people's mail.
"I questioned the mail carrier because I don't even know if we have a permanent carrier," she said. "There are a lot of different people (delivering the mail)."
Allen acknowledged that there has been "consistent non-delivery" in Oak Park and Forest Park because of a shortage of carriers.
He said the Oak Park post office has hired 18 non-career carriers, known as city carrier assistants—roughly 20 percent of the workforce—to fill in the gaps. When carriers and other postal workers are injured on the job and take leave or simply call in sick for the day, the remaining workers have to pick up the slack, causing delivery delays, Allen said. Non-career carriers, however, make a fraction of their full-time counterparts, earning $15.61 an hour versus around $25 an hour, Allen said.
"The number of employees that are not available for work … becomes an issue because those deliveries and those routes have to be absorbed by others," he said.
Complaints about non-delivery and slow delivery also have not been handled appropriately, Allen acknowledged.
Oak Park resident Rick Nosek said after going days without receiving mail he attempted to contact local postmaster Theresa Thurmond but was told by an unnamed postal employee that he could not speak with her or leave a voicemail. Nosek argued that at the very least the post office could communicate the problems to the public.
"Why couldn't they put out word to the media and through social media that we're having these problems?" he questioned, adding, "This is horrible customer service."
Allen said the staff shortage stems in part from a change by Congress in 2006, requiring the USPS to prefund retiree health benefits.
"We made payments in 2007, 2008 and, I think, 2009," Allen said. "The last three years we've had to default on those payments because the money is just not there."
He said a decline in use of the postal service because of a switch by many to the Internet has also hurt the post office's bottom line. The post office also pays more than $1 billion into worker's compensation annually, stretching the USPS budget even tighter, Allen said.
He said the post office has assigned three staff members to respond directly to local complaints. Residents with service problems can contact the post office with complaints at 1-800-ASK-USPS or via the web at http://www.usps.com. Complaints that are not resolved within 72 hours can contact Terry Mallory, the post office's manager of consumer and industry contact, directly at 630-260-5783 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen also encouraged customers to volunteer to place barcode stickers on their mailboxes that carriers must scan to show that they are making their routes.
"I recommend that if you feel that you have not been getting mail that you volunteer (for the program), so that we will be able to say, 'Well, at least they opened the box and scanned it.'" Allen said.
Allen said the post office will begin tracking complaints and asked when he expected to see improvements, said: "I think, realistically, as soon as possible. I can't give a definite date, but I'm certainly not going to let time pass us by."
Timothy Inklebarger: email@example.com