Local residents have reported numerous problems in Berkeley with postal service, particularly in recent weeks. Photo: Sonny Abesamis
Local residents have reported numerous problems in Berkeley with the postal service, particularly in recent weeks. Photo: Sonny Abesamis

It’s definitely not just you. Late-night and skipped mail deliveries, suspect delivery “attempts,” slow service and mis-delivered mail: Berkeleyside has received complaints about the U.S. Postal Service from more than 80 Berkeley residents in the past week who detailed a range of problems throughout October. And some say there has been trouble for much longer.

“USPS has been horrible lately – either very late nighttime deliveries or none at all,” wrote one resident. “I’ve lodged a complaint with the USPS but as yet have no reply, just confirmation of its receipt. Very very frustrating, especially at voting time.”

Said another: “You can’t get anyone to help you. The people in the post office might (at most) give you a number to call, but you can never reach an actual person. This is frustrating, and should be unacceptable for a federal organization, especially one that people rely on on a daily basis.”

Berkeleyside became aware of the widespread problems last week after breaking the news about a local man who found nearly 100 sample ballots dumped, along with their plastic bindings, into a Berkeley recycling bin. The carrier responsible has been identified and interviewed by authorities but the investigation is ongoing and no further information has been provided.

Berkeleyside has since received reports of more dumped ballot guides and actual vote-by-mail ballots, of people not receiving their guides at all, and of others who were still waiting for their ballots as of this week. But the shoddy service seems to be impacting more than just election mail. Reports have come in from all sectors of the city, as well as Albany, Kensington and Oakland.

“Very late deliveries many times after 10:00 p.m. The carrier is walking around with a head lamp,” wrote Bill Newton. “Budget cuts, staff shortages, anyone have any ideas?”

Berkeley’s new postmaster, Candace Champion, was “not available” to talk this week, according to the USPS spokesman for the region. Champion, who became postmaster in August, did not respond to an email request for an interview.

This limestone artwork at the downtown Berkeley Post Office was completed by by David Slivka in December 1937. Photo: Hitchster
This limestone artwork at the downtown Berkeley Post Office was completed by by David Slivka in December 1937. Photo: Hitchster

Mail delivery horror stories have proliferated in recent weeks. Many say the mail now comes between 9 and 11 p.m., if not later. It takes much longer than usual to arrive. There are days when no mail comes at all, followed by multiple deliveries in a single day. The late-night deliveries can be disruptive and disconcerting, residents report.

One woman, hearing the mail carrier arrive late at night, reportedly thought she was about to be burglarized. And Kieron Slaughter, writing on Nextdoor, “was shocked” to get a delivery at 2 a.m.: “I heard someone walking on my porch with a flashlight and looked outside to see a Mail Person delivering packages.”

Wrote Mimi Mugler, “We are definitely experiencing postal weirdness.… Last night, I couldn’t sleep and was up at about 1:30 a.m. I heard funny electronic noises on the porch and opened the door to a mail carrier who handed me my mail! When I commented that it was rather late (!), he told me about our area having only a small shelf to sort the mail or something and that our area was very behind on mail delivery. I couldn’t quite track everything he said, and he seemed a little stressed.”

One mother in North Berkeley reported late delivery three nights in a row this week, at 11:45 one night, and 11 the next: “This is a huge problem for our family — we have two kids and a dog, and the dog barks whenever the mail comes and wakes up our sleeping kids.”

Wrote one local man, about a Wednesday delivery: “My wife and I were expecting some baby-related packages from Amazon today (our due date is 3 weeks away — eeek!) and have been waiting all day for the delivery to arrive. USPS confirmed it being delivered at 12:05am, but I went outside searching (in my pajamas, for good measure …) and it’s nowhere to be found.”

"Save our post office": This sign was photographed in a Berkeley window in 2013 but may be taking on new meaning in recent weeks. Photo: Quinn Dombrowski
“Save our post office”: This sign was photographed in a Berkeley window in 2013 but may be taking on new meaning in recent weeks. Photo: Quinn Dombrowski

There’s also the problem of “attempted” deliveries: People get notifications that deliveries were attempted in the middle of the night, or when residents know they were home and can verify no carrier tried to drop off items. Not to mention mis-delivered items.

“Countless times I’ve received other people’s important mail (jury duty notices, parking citations, bills) and it makes me wonder how many times my mail has been delivered elsewhere,” Amanda Prasuhn said. “There’s a huge problem with the Berkeley USPS.”

Wrote another local woman: “We are receiving mail from incorrect addresses, not even similar to ours. Our neighbors have been getting our mail and passing it along to us and vice versa. In addition we’ve all found numerous mail items of ours, with very clear addresses, in our recycling bins just beneath our mail boxes, which this mail carrier clearly hasn’t put into our mailboxes.”

Said another resident: “I just received an envelope with tickets from Cal Performances intended for a recipient that lives five blocks away with the same house number. Misdelivered mail is not at all unusual for here on my South Berkeley block. And the mail carriers are out in the evenings here too, wearing headlamps to light the way, and sometimes even in their street clothes. Well off to redeliver the tickets so that the person awaiting them can attend their event!!”

One South Berkeley resident said he’s had so many problems with flawed postal service that he installed a surveillance camera on his porch so he could document the situation.

“USPS never even shows up at our door, even when USPS tracking says a delivery or delivery attempt was made,” he wrote. “We’ve had several packages lost (including my wife’s wedding ring, a wedding gift, and hundreds of dollars’ worth of electronics) … and we’ve received a disturbing amount of other people’s confidential documents (including a couple of child support notices, credit card bills, and a letter from a medical office).”

Many Berkeley residents say postal service has been lacking, particularly in recent weeks. Photo: Skip Moore
Many Berkeley residents say postal service has been lacking, particularly in recent weeks. Photo: Skip Moore

Another local resident was unsettled to receive a notice from the USPS reporting that her family’s mail would be forwarded to Vallejo, the result, it turned out, of a fraudulent request. She said she had been even more troubled to find out that it had taken so long for the postal service to get her the notice that her mail was already being delivered to Vallejo by the time she was notified.

“Among the letters delivered to the fraudulent address was a credit card statement, and our card number was promptly stolen,” she said.

Many readers shared support for their longtime carriers, and concern about working conditions, and the danger of late-night hours and delivery in the dark. Others note that new temporary carriers may not be maintaining the standards of permanent employees who used to serve the neighborhood.

Others have expressed exasperation because there’s no easy way to report problems or get a response, and no fix in sight.

Said Emily Lemur: “My entire apartment building … will sometimes go days without receiving mail. At least twice, I’ve had a small package that was ‘out for delivery’ until late at night, at which point the tracking info would claim that delivery had been attempted (it hadn’t) and that the mail receptacle was blocked (which doesn’t make any sense unless they lost the key to our building). I tried to complain at the post office and they told me they had no supervisor, didn’t know where my package was, and gave me 3 phone numbers to call to complain to someone. All three numbers just rang and rang until the call was disconnected. Got my packages eventually, but SO FRUSTRATING and makes me feel so powerless.”

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she became concerned in recent weeks when she began to get mail late at night, then heard from a constituent who hadn’t gotten a visit from her carrier in three days. Her items suddenly arrived last Saturday.

We received a bunch of mail, 10 lbs worth!” the woman told Wengraf. “Included were checks for over $5,000, bills, etc. I run my landscape design business from my home, and this has significantly affected my cash flow.”

Wengraf said she is particularly worried for seniors and others who rely on consistent check delivery to pay their bills. There’s also the issue of election mail, both for voters who are trying to get their ballot guides and vote-by-mail ballots, and for candidates who are trying to reach those voters through campaign materials, she said.

“I think it’s a huge problem,” Wengraf said. “It just doesn’t give you any faith in the system. We can’t even depend on the mail being delivered anymore.”

She said she would call Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office to try to get her involved and see if pressure from above might make a difference, particularly because it’s seemingly impossible to get anyone on the phone at a local post office. (Wengraf said, shortly after publication, she had already spoken with a Lee staffer who said 40 complaints about mail service had been logged at the office and “they were trying to address the problem.”)

So what the heck is going on?

Many have blamed the Republicans for the financial strain placed on the post office in DC (file photo). Photo: Quinn Dombrowski
Many have blamed the Republicans for the financial strain placed on the postal service nationally. Photo: Quinn Dombrowski

Augustine Ruiz Jr., spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service’s Bay-Valley and San Francisco districts — which includes Berkeley — said there have been “volume increases due to heavy election and political mail,” which are putting a strain on the system.

Traditionally, the fall mailing season is punctuated with increased volumes of mail which are unique to this time of the year,” he said, by email. “We make 65,292 delivery stops in Berkeley daily.”

He did not say how many stops each carrier makes or whether that number has changed.

Ruiz said there are 163 carriers currently assigned to Berkeley — compared to 151 last year — and that the USPS has “plans to hire 19 City Carrier Assistants (CCA) which will bring us to full complement of 182.” (CCAs are entry-level spots that Ruiz described as “pre-career employees.”)

Ruiz did not go into detail about late-night deliveries but acknowledged “We have had some of our carriers in Berkeley out past 6 p.m. delivering mail to ensure our customers receive mail daily.”

He said the USPS aims for carriers to complete their routes by 6 p.m., and hopes the new hires will “help us alleviate delivering later in the day.”

“We take seriously our role to deliver the mail and we appreciate our customers’ confidence in our service,” he wrote in an email response to Berkeleyside. “We encourage customers to share their concerns, their comments and their compliments with us.”

But, according to many other reports, that’s not the full story.

Mail delivery has been a problem in Berkeley throughout October and, for some, much longer. Photo: Skip Moore
Mail delivery has been a problem in Berkeley throughout October and, for some, much longer. Photo: Skip Moore

One longtime local carrier told Berkeleyside the USPS has consolidated routes in Berkeley such that what used to be 130 routes are now 60 or 70, and each carrier has to deliver 30-40% more mail each day. Eleven-hour days are not uncommon, he said. Ruiz declined to provide information about consolidated routes.

The man who installed the surveillance camera on his porch said staff at the San Pablo Avenue post office in Berkeley told him budget cuts meant there was no permanent carrier in his zone, leaving “floating” temporary carriers to cover the route. He was told some Berkeley routes are so dense that it’s hard for carriers to keep up with the volume of deliveries, leading to many late nights and “lost” items.

“On a couple of occasions, I’ve confronted my postal worker about lost packages, and their responses have ranged from ‘Oh well’ to ‘If you have a problem with it, contact the postal inspector,’” he told Berkeleyside. “My wife and I have filed a couple of complaints to the USPS IG’s office, but not surprisingly, we haven’t had any follow up.”

Ruiz said he could not “address hearsay information from a report to you by a customer who says he was told by ‘local staff’ on budget cuts, etc.” Ruiz was not able to say how many carriers in Berkeley are permanent vs. “floating,” and declined to speak by phone about any of the delivery issues reported to Berkeleyside.

Another local resident said her family gets “what we now call ‘night mail’ from our excellent carrier who let me know that for months now, he’s had to deliver his own route as well as someone else’s. At 5pm he showed me his truck still full… another 4 hours of delivering still to go. I feel really badly for him every day. He says he doesn’t know how long his body can take it.”

Carriers have told other local residents about having to pull double shifts or add on deliveries from other routes.

“I talked to one very tired carrier and she stated that she was delivering an extra 1/2 route after completing her regular route,” one reader reported. “I did not ascertain why she had to do this extra but feel it could lead to problems in delivery.”

In Albany and Oakland, there have been reports of carriers out due to illness in recent weeks which, along with the influx of election mail, has been a significant burden on the carriers who remain.

Another local resident called the Elmwood post office to find out “why our mail deliveries are so screwed up. Some days have no delivery and other days have 2 deliveries. The woman I spoke to said they have a high absentee problem right now. She said she was up until 3 a.m. Too bad this is happening when we are waiting for our absentee ballots. What a mess.”

The downtown Berkeley Post Office — seen here in 2013 — has been the site a battleground in recent years, with the USPS trying to sell the facility and community members fighting to retain it. Photo: Steve Rhodes
The downtown Berkeley Post Office — seen here in 2013 — has been an occasional battleground in recent years, with the USPS trying to sell the facility and community members fighting to retain it. Photo: Steve Rhodes

According to other reports, issues are also cropping up at local processing and distribution centers, meaning mail isn’t ready for carriers until later in the day. There’s also a theory about Amazon deliveries taking priority and leading to a significant increase in parcels, which creates another challenge.

I’ve spoken with some letter carriers who report they carry at least twice as many packages every day, mainly for Amazon. Add to that, the fact that some Amazon packages are being delivered by letter carriers on a Sunday as well,” wrote one Berkeleyside reader. A city of Berkeley staffer said, at a recent council meeting, he too has heard that Amazon deliveries are taxing the system.

Ruiz did not respond to a question about how Amazon might be impacting the delivery schedule or address why carriers might be missing delivery days altogether. The postal service is required by law to deliver mail six days a week, according to the USPS inspector general’s office.

Some local residents have said they now avoid the U.S. Postal Service at all costs, while others wonder what it might take to restore it to the reliable, venerable institution it once was. Many have placed the blame on a federal mandate — enacted in 2006 by a Republican Congress — to require the USPS to “prefund its long-term pension and healthcare liabilities” for 75 years by 2016.

“The USPS might be in less dire straits if Republicans in Congress were not trying to kill it outright,” wrote David Horsey in the LA Times in 2013. “In truth, the Republicans who crafted the bill were not interested in turning the Postal Service into a better business; they were seeking to run the post office out of business.”

Those longtime issues don’t explain what may have changed suddenly in Berkeley earlier this month, however.

Susan Hammer, Berkeley’s chief shop steward with the American Postal Workers Union — which represents the clerks, as well as maintenance and motor vehicle workers — confirmed carrier reports of long hours in Berkeley and neighboring Oakland. She said carriers in Oakland regularly work 10-12 hour days, and she’s even heard of carriers who work more than 12-hour days.

Part of the reason is that this is an election cycle and the mail is even heavier than usual,” she said. “One of the other reasons is that they are short-staffed so the carriers are carrying their own routes and then carrying a ‘swing’ from another route.”

She noted that mis-deliveries are often caused by a flawed sorting process — which is handled by a machine — in conjunction with “floater” carriers who are not the permanent carrier on a route and may be unfamiliar with the neighborhood.

The local union that represents the actual carriers, the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 1111, did not respond to a request for an interview.

At the Berkeley Post Office, in 2005: "Long line of little cars." Photo: Kai Schreiber
At the Berkeley Post Office, in 2005: “Long line of little cars.” Photo: Kai Schreiber

Retired Berkeley mail carrier William Smith said his friends who still carry mail in the city have described “varying degrees of horrible” over the past year, but say “right now is absolutely the worst.” He too has heard of the consolidated routes and the late-night deliveries, and the push to get as much work done in as short a time as possible.

Smith retired in 2009, after 30 years on the job, due to work-related back pain and other considerations. He described a perfect storm of problems that are contributing to the current mess.

Shifting mail patterns have been a challenge to keep up with over the decades, he said. Initially, routes were set up to handle letter mail, rather than packages and parcels. In recent years, letter mail has dried up, and packages have become increasingly common. And when you’re talking about an individual carrier on a route making deliveries to many stops, bulky items are naturally going to be more of a challenge.

“It used to be, at Christmas time, it was really bad,” said Smith. “Now, it’s like Christmas all the time.”

He echoed the idea that election season — especially with a presidential race — is another difficult time. That’s because of “lists”: mail deliveries that go out to every address on a route.

“You have multiple lists each day, bundles and bundles of mail, and every house gets a list four to five times over,” Smith said. “And if you don’t have enough staff, it’s going to keep you out there forever.”

He recalled how, at one point in the 80s, he held the record for coming back late at night due to the demands of the route. It was, he recalled, 8:45 p.m. He and other carriers used to tease each other about late nights and delivering after dark.

“It was a running gag, ‘You’re gonna need a miner’s hat,’” Smith said. But it’s no longer a laughing matter, he added. “They’re out there with flashlights more often than not now.”

Tips from the community

  • To report problems, call 800-275-8777 or visit http://usps.com. (Pro tip from a resident: “It is a hassle, but you really do hear back from your distribution center manager. I chose to hear back by email so now I can easily ‘keep in touch’ with the manager of my local distribution center about issues as they arise. Much easier than trying to reach them by phone.”)
  • Some say the Orinda and Montclair post offices can be easier to access than the Elmwood branch. (A neighborhood resident wrote, of Orinda, “It is a longer distance from my home behind the Claremont Hotel but there is parking so the time is about the same. No long lines.”)
  • Buy stamps online, or at Safeway or office supply stores (just make sure you’re not being assessed a surcharge).
  • Email Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office and let her know about your service problem.

Federal probe launched into dumped Berkeley voter guides, returned election postcards (10.18.16)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...