State route 361 draws a winding, 62-mile line through the barren, buff landscape of central Nevada, unfurling across the empty rangeland of Mineral, Nye and Churchill counties. Just when you think it couldn’t get more desolate, Gabbs appears at the base of the Paradise Range, the unforgiving Nevada sun rumbling off its metal roofs.
The town of Gabbs was founded by a private magnesium mining company in 1941. During its heyday in the 1970s, there were more than 1,500 residents. Today, it has a population of only 75. There was once a grocery store. A hair salon. A laundromat. But that’s all gone now. Houses in various states of disrepair host a mostly elderly population. Whatever public venues remain open rely mostly on volunteers’ goodwill: the community library, the school, the senior center.
But drive down Brucite Street — past the decrepit St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and past a grassy lot filled with rusty cars. There, on the corner of Brucite and 4th Street, is a sign of life: a post office. It’s one of the only businesses in town, alongside R&D’s Bar and Grill, where mine employees clad in safety vests mingle with residents.
Gabbs’ current state — as well as its boom-and-bust history — is that of many mining towns in the West. But it’s not the businesses that have gone out that have folks talking. It’s the post office.
In the first quarter of 2022, the Nevada-Sierra postal district, which includes Gabbs’ residents and about three million others, saw mail deliveries take an average of 3.52 days, a 33.5 percent increase from the same period two years ago, according to data collected by Steve Hutkins, a prominent U.S. Postal Service expert and the editor of Save the Post Office, a blog that tracks the agency’s performance.
Over this same period, urban centers like Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle and Sacramento saw mail delays increase around 30 percent on average. “The whole country is suffering as a result of bad service,” says Paul Steidler, a fellow at the Lexington Institute, a center-right think tank based in Virginia.
But the impact of late mail is felt even more acutely in rural areas like Gabbs, which host a higher proportion of low-income and senior residents. These populations are less likely to have internet access and more likely to rely on the mail to pay bills, receive medical prescriptions and correspond with the government.
The woes of the Postal Service led Congress to pass the Postal Service Reform Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in April. But will it be enough to propel the agency into the 21st century and help regain the trust of rural American towns?
In Gabbs, residents aren’t holding their breath — or onto much hope — that it will.
When some ways of life disappear, a community adapts. But there’s no substitute for the post office when it fails rural Americans.
There’s no one reason why the USPS has fallen so far behind. Instead, it’s a tangled root ball of issues that got us here.
The USPS is self-funded by the sale of the USPS’ products, services and postage — zero tax dollars go to its cause. In 2006, the USPS was in a healthy financial situation. So healthy, in fact, that Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act — mandating that the agency set aside a portion of revenue specifically for future retiree health benefits for current employees. “This advance funding requirement places a burden of about $6.6 billion on the Postal Service that would not exist if they followed a pay-as-you-go approach,” James O’Rourke, a teaching professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, told the Poynter Institute in 2020. “This burden has quite nearly bankrupted the USPS over a 15-year period.”
Soon after the bill passed, the USPS’ package-delivery component started facing rising competition from privately owned shipping companies, which started lobbying to eliminate the USPS and nab its market share. Separately, the rise of the internet caught the Postal Service flat-footed in its mail-delivery segment. People began sending fewer letters and packages, and when packages were shipped, the majority were no longer going through the USPS.
Unlike Amazon — which has fully automated inventory tracking that allows the company to know the dimensions and weight of whatever you buy the moment you click a button and pack delivery trucks as efficiently as possible — the USPS has continued to depend on postal workers to work face to face with customers bringing in, well, whatever they bring in to ship that day.
Amid the competition and modernization of correspondence, the USPS continued to operate on the same lean revenue model propped up on the sale of stamps and first-class mail, limiting its ability to make the investments needed to create new infrastructure, products, fleet management and generally modernize its operations to compete in the new market. So, mail continues to move at the same rate, or slower than, it has in the past.
Altogether, it has created a system that seems clunky to customers, an agency that relies on highly specific points of sale with lowering demand and a human workforce that has to compete with Amazon technology.
From 2005 to 2021, the total annual volume of mail handled by employees dropped by 82.8 billion pieces. A corresponding decline in revenue decimated its bottom line. In 2005, the USPS achieved a net income of $1.4 billion; in 2010, it reported a net loss of $8.5 billion. To survive, the USPS would have to become “smaller, leaner and more competitive,” then-Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in 2011. That year, the agency announced out of a total of about 35,600 post offices, it had targeted 3,652 for closure.
Gabbs’ was on the list, along with 13 others in Nevada — most in rural areas. Dozens of residents gathered on the K-12 school’s gym bleachers, taking turns to denounce the closure project. “It will kill the town,” Hazel Dummar, a longtime resident, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Eventually, the USPS walked back its plan and instead moved to cut hours at 13,000 rural mail facilities.
The agency hobbled through the 2010s, with the percentage of one-day, two-day and three- to five-day first-class mail delivered on time improving before leveling off and declining between 2011 through 2014, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Between 2014 and 2019, first-class mail in the three- to five-day category was delivered on time at a rate of 82 percent, largely missing the USPS’ self-determined target of 95.25 percent, according to the Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the agency.
Today, mail services are slowly improving, but they aren’t better than they have been in the past. Last year, the agency announced it was pushing deliveries back by up to two days for first-class mail traveling more than 1,908 miles. The change is part of a 10-year plan by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that calls for additional cutbacks he says will put the agency back in the green. Rather than study why standards have suffered in recent years, and what can be done to improve them, the USPS is saying, “If you just give us more time to deliver stuff, we’ll deliver stuff on time.” In the third quarter of 2022 — which ended June 30 — the agency reported an average delivery time for mail across the network as 2.4 days, with 93.5 percent of first-class mail delivered on time.
Even with these new standards, the agency has failed to meet its 95 percent on-time delivery goal once since last October, which is when these new standards kicked in. The West is the region that’s going to be the most affected by these changes, according to a Washington Post analysis. This is in part because the USPS is shifting from using planes for shipping long-distance mail to trucks, which increases the delivery time, says Hutkins. “If you live in a place where the distances are greater from the rest of the country, then more of your mail is going to take four or five days because of the longer time it takes to move the mail around on trucks.”
The Postal Service Reform Act could give the agency a breather, says Christopher Shaw, the author of “First Class: The U.S. Postal Service, Democracy, and the Corporate Threat.” The bill releases the USPS from financial obligations to pre-fund retiree health care for its employees — which could save the agency nearly $50 billion over the next 10 years — and provides new avenues to generate revenue through entering agreements with other government agencies (like the Department of Motor Vehicles or tribal governments) to provide nonpostal products and services at post offices — possibly fishing licenses, driver’s license renewals or hunting permits.
But there’s a gaping hole in the bill: mail delivery standards.
The mail of Gabbs’ 75 residents is a drop in an ocean of 425 million pieces handled by some 653,000 USPS employees.
If a bronze Ford Taurus is parked in front of the post office in Gabbs, the odds are April Stewart is standing behind the counter inside. She’s held a job as one of Gabbs’ two part-time postmasters since last year. Blue-eyed with blond hair, she has a no-nonsense air to her, favoring a snappy “yup” to a “yes.”
That Stewart, 31, would end up working as a part-time postmaster didn’t surprise her.
In Gabbs, there wasn’t much to do growing up, and retrieving the mail was akin to a mini-adventure. Stewart’s grandmother would pick her and her siblings up on her way to the post office and all would caper to the wooden building where it was then housed. Inside, dozens of brass mailboxes lined the wall.
The outings inspired the precocious young Stewart. One year for Halloween, as the kids of Gabbs dressed as pumpkins and ghosts, an eight- or nine-year-old Stewart skipped about town dressed as a book of stamps.
When she was hired last year, much had changed in the Gabbs post office compared to when she was a fourth grader — let alone when the location was founded 80 years ago. The mailboxes’ brass doors have been replaced by gray ones, unlocked with a key. Mail can now be scanned and tracked. Rural mail carriers deliver Amazon packages in addition to first-class envelopes. What hasn’t changed is the outsized role the post office plays in rural communities — and, by extension, the postmaster. Stewart considers the role as nothing less than a public service. “I was raised to learn that you have to help people, especially in a place like (this),” she says.
Four days a week she opens the counter window and logs the previous day’s trickle of incoming and outgoing mail on a computer (it gets busier the first week of each month when the senior population mails out bills). Between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m., a carrier delivers incoming mail. Letters and periodicals end up in some of the office’s 103 P.O. boxes — because Gabbs is so rural, the USPS doesn’t deliver to individual addresses — and packages land in parcel lockers. The carrier takes outgoing mail to Hawthorne, about 55 miles away, where a big mail truck ferries it to the regional processing and distribution center in Reno, a two-hour drive northwest. From this point on, the mail of Gabbs’ 75 residents becomes a drop in an ocean of 425 million pieces handled by some 653,000 USPS employees.
But this machinery has become fickle. Lee Green, the genial owner of R&D’s Bar and Grill, inherited the business when his mother died earlier this year. After her passing, Green had to send legal documents to the recorder’s office in Tonopah, the Nye County seat. He didn’t bother to ask for a tracking number for the first-class envelope — Tonopah, after all, is only 111 miles away. That was in mid-March; the letter still hasn’t arrived. Green ended up having to drive there to hand over the documents in person.
Last April, Georgene Chiaratti, 57, a kitchen manager at the local school, received a letter from the IRS. It referenced the amount of stimulus-check money she’d received during the pandemic — she would need this information when filing her taxes. But the letter came too late; Chiaratti had already sent her tax returns. Because she failed to declare the correct amount, she incurred a $1,000 penalty, she says. “I was counting on the money to pay ahead on some of our bills.”
Identifying the weak link in the Postal Service’s long chain can be something of a guessing game. Last year, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada pointed the finger at DeJoy’s “misguided proposals” to slow mail delivery, among other cost-saving measures. Stewart pins the blame on the local distribution network. “Outgoing things will kind of miraculously disappear for a week or two then show up in Reno magically,” she says. It’s now become standard practice for Stewart to put a tracking number on mail her customers say is important, even when these aren’t certified letters. The postmaster has become something of a custodian.
When some ways of life disappear, a community — especially in the age of prolific globalized online services — adapts. The absence of a movie theater is now easily remedied by a Netflix subscription. The shuttering of a shopping center is followed by online orders of clothes and cat litter and nearly anything else you might need. Growing up in rural Nevada, Green didn’t watch his first baseball game until he was in eighth grade — they only got two channels back then, and neither one carried games. Now, the folk music blasting through R&D’s Bar and Grill comes from an internet radio station. But for many rural residents of the American West, there’s no substitute for the post office, even when it fails them at times.
But when the mail comes and goes without error these days in Gabbs, it’s a reminder of what the USPS can provide. A reminder that strangers and loved ones alike are within reach. After Ernie Klucas, 62, received surgery as part of his cancer treatment, his son wrote him a letter. It landed in Klutas’ hands on a sunny day in June — a mere two days after it was sent, postmarked St. Louis, Missouri.