Over 20 people crowded the corner of a Bushwick post office, all huddled impatiently by the pick-up window waiting for their number to be called, just 15 minutes before closing on a Saturday afternoon. At the window, a young woman faced off with one of the four postal workers on duty. Visibly infuriated, she paced to and from the service counter, exchanging frustrations with both the employee and supervisor as she fought to receive a package that would eventually never surface.
“My mom has had a P.O. box here for years and she’s way more patient than me,” said Yolanda Williams, 21, a Bushwick resident home from school and waiting on several birthday gifts in the mail.
“Now every time I come here there is a problem. I just watched them turn away a man before me who had a pink slip,” the standard U.S. Postal Service notification that your package is ready to be picked up. “If the package is not here, why would they notify me that it’s here!”
Postal Service (USPS) branches in a few Brooklyn neighborhoods have acquired a terrible reputation for issues such as poor customer service and lost or delayed mail. Across the borough, the post offices with the worst reputations appear to be located in Bushwick, Williamsburg and Flatbush, according to published reports.
“Our office is aware that one of our post offices is being very negligent,” says Erika Tannor, director of communications at Councilman Rafael L. Espinal’s office in Bushwick.
The complaints about the postal service—which have become increasingly common over the past two years—have been a recurring topic of discussion at community board meetings and have been on the table every other month when Brooklyn councilmembers meet to discuss issues presented by the community, sources say.
“The United States Postal Service is one of the few agencies explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution,” said Councilman Espinal in a statement. “Receiving your mail is a fundamental component of our society and we must make every effort to ensure our Congressional representatives and local postal offices are doing their due-diligence to ensure proper and responsible delivery of mailed items.”
According to Tannor, customers in Bushwick frequently complain about lines stretching out the door and rudeness by personnel.
Blame the machines
Since the USPS is a federal entity, most complaints land on the doorstep of Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, New York’s seventh district representative, who has been outspoken about similar issues at a Red Hook post office. City councilmembers tell City Limits they have notified the congresswoman’s office, but are still awaiting a response. (After multiple attempts, Velasquez’s office could not be reached for comment.)
“This is through and through a federal issue, so as to what extent we could be a partner with her on this issue, we would really like to try,” says Tannor. “There isn’t much we can do but look out for our constituents and urge the congresswoman to look into this issue. It’s a right that people should have timely access to their mail.”
Incoming mail into New York City is sorted at the USPS Morgan Processing and Distribution Center in Midtown, Manhattan. It’s then distributed through the boroughs, including Brooklyn.
An audit report from May 2016 by the USPS Inspector General’s office identified factors behind the Brooklyn offices’ inefficiencies.
Specifically, the report found that at the facility, which processed 1.96 billion mail pieces in 2015 alone, operator mistakes and machine jams were a root of the problems, resulting in $8.5 million worth of extra work hours in a single year.
An example of a common hiccup at the facility could be a single piece of mail with wider-than-average edges jamming a processing machine and backing up the entire flow of mail being sorted. A problem like this could result in hours of effort to get back on track after the disruption.
Morale an issue
In an attempt to reduce work hours, USPS has focused on the automation of processes and the rearranging of employee duties, known as “excessing,” which may be having an effect on the service at Brooklyn post offices. The people who lose their position are moved to a different position or location entirely, which saves the service money but can hurt morale.
The American Postal Workers Union has been outspoken in battling these changes, as budget cuts, downsizing and excessing are disrupting employee’s lives through job reassignment and automation of work. As according to the APWU’s website, “one generation of automated equipment after another reduce the number of employees needed to process every product in our industry.”
“A big part of the problem is that Brooklyn is micromanaged by postal management from Washington, D.C. and Windsor, Conn.,” says Thomas McMenamy, who represents the APWU’s Brooklyn Local 251. “A typical postal manager really doesn’t manage his or her station. They are on telecons all day long being told what [each] poor job performance station is enduring. You see, postal managers get told what to do, they are not allowed to manage their facility.”
McMenamy adds: “As for staffing, they are always told to make do with less; their job is impossible. Morale is horrible!”
For the past few years, budget cuts in postal service have caused some relocation and a consolidation of workers across the city, which leaves more work for the existing staff to shoulder.
“What the public does not know is that this last Christmas, the postal service had a severe shortage of equipment, trucks, trailers, mail transports,” says McMenamy. Describing it as a near disaster, he says, “Drivers worked over 12 hours a day, six days a week, because trailers were not available for their runs. Clerks worked over 12 hours a day six days a week to distribute the mail. Postal management comes up with nonsensical schemes that the [workers] must fix on the fly.”
The union argues public’s frustration is misdirected at the service associates behind the window, when it should be directed at management elsewhere. When a customer is irate and angry, postal management won’t answer the phone or tend to the complaints, which places the burden on an associate at the counter. According to McMenamy, “they have forgotten the customer… the post office fails in this regard.”
Service tries new tools
A new development to combat the customer-service issues is the introduction of a pilot program called “Informed Delivery.” It is a website run by the USPS, currently on a trial run in New York City, as well some parts of Virginia and Connecituct, that gives customers the ability to track and view their mail as it makes its way to the post office. If the program proves successful, customers may no longer have to travel to the post office to check on the status of expected deliveries, which is a common issue at the Brooklyn offices.
“It’s a tool, and it’s still in the pilot phase, but I think it’s a tool that can be a game changer,” says Xavier Hernandez, a spokesperson of the USPS. “There will be a feature where you can file complaints or issues through the site, and will relay and connect you with your local post office based on ZIP code.”
Now available in parts of New York, the program is set to be nationwide sometime in 2017.
While the program has potential to resolve complaints of poor customer service, the USPS is aware of the bad reputation at the Brooklyn offices, Hernandez says, and it plans to “deep-dive and investigate as to what those issues are.”
Because the USPS has no mechanism to track recurring issues or trends, the only way to identify the cause of a problem is to follow a specific complaint and backtrack until the hiccup is found.
“There has been some change in local management and they are aware of delivery issues that are causing inefficiencies,” says Hernandez. “Sometimes it’s a ground-up issue. If you’ve got managers in there, folks who are willing to address the problems that they are hearing from the community, then that’s a positive thing to have.”
The post and the poor
Problems with post offices don’t affect all New Yorkers equally. There are some indications that offices in lower-income neighborhoods have worse reviews. And low-income households tend to depend more on the postal service for a variety of reasons, including international exchanges and postal banking. Many people use P.O. boxes to avoid the hassle of frequent changes in address, as well as to avoid packages being damaged or stolen. Complaints about service are not only common Brooklyn, but in low-income communities across the city.
Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Councilman Rafael Salamanca, Jr. of the south Bronx, tells City Limits the complaints heard in Brooklyn are familiar to his office as well. “We recently requested a complete audit in regards to the mail service in our area from the USPS, and they have agreed to do a full investigation and audit,” he says.
Williamsburg saw huge demographic change over the past decade. With a higher number of residents, the USPS added an additional ZIP code in 2011 to accommodate growth. Bushwick, despite evidence of similar growth, has not received the same.
“Williamsburg and Bushwick Stations are two Brooklyn areas that are gentrifying quickly from the deteriorated communities they once were,” says McMenamy. “The Postal Service’s infrastructure in these areas remains stagnant.”
Post offices remain understaffed and overcrowded as many officials work to solve the issues and residents continue to bear the repercussions.
“This is not a new thing, ask anybody in there,” said Williams, the irate customer, just before she turned to make the empty-handed trip back home along the Bushwick sidewalk. “I just don’t have the patience for this anymore.”