On Monday morning April 5, a GBH News editor dropped a letter into a mailbox outside the U.S. Post Office in Central Square in Cambridge. The letter was addressed to a family member in Memphis, Tennessee.
Nearly three weeks later, that letter has not arrived.
Another GBH News editor sent a letter the same day to Berkley, Michigan, from the massive Fort Point Channel post office. It took 14 days for that envelope to make the trip.
The U.S. Postal Service advertises that first-class mail — your average letter with a 55 cent stamp — arrives within “1-3 business days.” That is an official standard set by the Postal Service.
We decided to test it.
Editors, reporters and producers at GBH News sent nearly 100 letters from different places in the metro area at various hours on the same day to correspondents of their own choosing in 38 states, creating a random sample. The letters were addressed to residents of large cities, suburbs and small towns. The experiment was designed to recreate what might be the experience of an ordinary user of the U.S. Postal Service.
The Postal Service did not pass our test. A little over half of our letters arrived within the three-day window.
By Friday of that week, much of our mail had arrived, but there were still ten letters wandering around the country looking for their addressees. A letter to rural Virginia arrived April 13; a letter to Washington, D.C., took another three days. As of April 22, there were still two letters that could not be accounted for. The results were better for mail within Massachusetts: All 10 of the in-state letters GBH staff sent arrived by April 8.
These results are far below what the Post Office aims to achieve — or what it used to achieve. In April 2020, the USPS reported that in the Greater Boston area, around 98% of local mail was arriving within 2-5 days, and 97% of nationwide mail from the area was landing within 7 days, according to reports archived by the Save The Post Office website.
For our sample, about 89% arrived by April 12.
Steve Hutkins, a retired New York University English professor who runs the Save The Post Office website, said that since last summer the postal service “has been having trouble keeping up with their standards.” Postal delivery times began to slow around July and bottomed out in December. “It has gotten better since then, but it is still not back to where it is supposed to be,” Hutkins said.
And while we are only talking about waiting a few extra days or a week for a piece of mail, Hutkins says those wait times are not trivial.
“If it’s your paycheck and you are waiting for it, it matters a lot,” he said. Data on his site shows that more than 30% of first class mail is “transaction” mail — things like bills, payments, requests for donations. A late bill or a late payment can have a dramatic impact. For every day the mail is delayed, “somebody’s not getting their money,” he said.
In our unscientific sample, distance from Boston did not appear to be a determining factor of how long a letter would take. A letter to Baltimore took as long as a letter to Hawaii (a week). On April 7, the U.S. Post Office delivered two dozen of our letters to points in the New England/Northeast corridor — and one to Tuscaloosa, Ala. Letters dropped at the central post office downtown had no apparent advantage for speed of delivery over letters dropped in residential building mail slots.
In issuing a new 10-year plan in March to overhaul the service, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and chair of the Postal Service board of governors Ron Bloom acknowledged that the post office is not meeting its own service standards, and has not been for several years. Part of the solution, they say, is to change the standard, so mail can take longer: “Our plan is to modify existing service standards for First-Class Mail letters and flats from a current 1- to 3-day service standard within the continental United States to a one-to-five-day service standard.”
The reasoning here is that meeting the 1-3 day standard requires the use of airplanes to carry the mail, but the Postal Service does not control its own fleet and has been getting bad performance from the commercial planes it uses. Moving that mail to trucks may slow it down, but it will make it more predictable. The service will have to initiaite a formal rulemaking and consider public comment before making any change.
Steve Doherty, spokesman for the Postal Service's northeast region, said that like any other business, COVID-19 has made it hard for the post office to maintain staffing levels, but he also said that delivery times have improved since the end of last year and "are now back to pre-holiday peak service levels." He added that the change to a five-day service standard for first class mail "will improve service reliability and predictability for customers and enhance the efficiency of the Postal Service network."
Scott Hoffman isn't buying it. Hoffman, head of the Boston Metro local of the American Postal Workers Union, told GBH News the slowdown in the mail has been a direct outcome of policy changes implemented by DeJoy, including a reduction in staff overtime, removal of high speed sorting machines and a decision to hold mail trucks until they are full instead of letting partially-loaded trucks head out to get mail moving.
Instead of investing in more people and machines to move the mail faster, he said, “The postal service is now walking away from its service commitments” in the new 10-year plan. Hoffman said he thinks DeJoy’s real goal is to erode public confidence in the government-controlled postal system in order to build support for privatizing it.
“It is dastardly what he is doing,” Hoffman said.
If he put those concerns in a strongly-worded letter, it might take a while for the U. S. Postal Service to deliver it.
Ken Cooper contributed to this story, as did about two dozen members of the GBH newsroom.