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The election didn’t sink the postal service, but Christmas might

An influx of holiday shipments has pushed USPS to the brink.

A U.S. Postal Service letter carrier organizes mail to be delivered from the post office in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

When it comes to Christmas shopping, I procrastinate. Most years, the one-two punch of Amazon Prime’s two-day delivery and USPS’s robust Priority Mail saves my tail. This year, I was left hanging.

When I found myself at the post office Tuesday afternoon, naively hoping my shipped gifts would arrive to family members and friends in time to be placed under the tree on Christmas Eve, I was put in my place. “You’ll be lucky if they arrive early next week,” the postal worker told me, although the sign just above her head clearly read “Priority Mail: 2 to 3 business days.”

I asked her what was a bigger rush: the election’s vote-by-mail mayhem, or this holiday season.

She laughed.

“It’s not even close. We’ve never been as busy as we are right now.”

I’m not the only one bracing for delays. Millions of Christmas packages shipped by the United States Postal Service are running late, according to The Washington Post. This “unprecedented” influx of shipments has “paralyzed the agency” — all at the absolute worst time of the year.

That last part may be hyperbole. Just months ago, we hyperventilated over the Postal Service’s ability to handle the election. In fact, we weren’t sure it would even make it to the election. In April, the agency pleaded before Congress for $75 billion in emergency relief, warning it could run out of funds by September. It instead received a $10 billion grant.

Congress has since drug its feet on COVID-19 relief, including a payout that would buoy USPS, but the agency survived nonetheless. In fact, it made it through the election intact — albeit limping. It’s not out of the woods, though, and Christmas may deliver the knockout punch we thought the election would bring.

At present, USPS is sinking. COVID-19 led to decreased volumes of mail for the first eight months of the pandemic, but e-commerce has spiked during the holidays (package volume is up 14% from this time in 2019). So has COVID-19 itself — nearly 19,000 of the 644,000 USPS workers nationwide are quarantined due to sickness or exposure.

This end-of-year conundrum concludes a year of chaos for the agency, which, under the lead of new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, implemented a number of cost-cutting and efficiency measures, also leading to delays in delivery.

With the election passed, USPS should no longer be viewed as a political pawn. The latest COVID-19 relief deal — which currently sits on President Trump’s desk — offers $10 billion to the USPS. That package’s probability of being passed in its current form is similar to my Christmas packages’ chances of arriving this weekend — dubious, at best. Trump’s Tuesday-night Twitter message called it “a disgrace.”

While a relief check would give the agency an immediate — and perhaps necessary — boost, the USPS needs reform as much as it needs relief. The postal service hasn’t turned a net profit since 2006 and its liabilities exceed assets by $163 billion.

Many potential reforms are included in a 2016 report to Congress, including tweaks to the cost-allocation system and shortening the delivery week. With a new administration come January and a controversial election in the rearview mirror, Congress can take a look at serious reform for America’s favorite government agency.

’Tis the season of giving, after all.