Speedy delivery in the age of COVID-19 slowed by volume, sickness

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Millions of Americans mostly confined to their homes by the coronavirus pandemic are relying heavily on e-commerce to deliver groceries, household necessities and other items to their front doors.

But that's not as easy as it looks.

Even as delivery service providers experience volumes of deliveries on par with the holiday season, postal workers and delivery drivers are suffering from the effects of COVID-19, too. The result in southeast Michigan, as in other parts of the country: delays in many deliveries.

An Amazon delivery truck leaves the fulfillment Center in Livonia, May 22, 2020.

The situation is perhaps most challenging for the U.S. Postal Service. Other delivery providers, such as United Parcel Service and Amazon.com, regularly rely on USPS to carry packages to their final destination. And that government service reportedly is in danger of running out of funding by the end of September — even as demand for some of its services has skyrocketed.

"The Postal Service has experienced a considerable increase in package volume. In response to this, we are utilizing our available resources to match the workload created by the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic," the agency said in a statement. "We apologize for the inconvenience of late-arriving packages and are working to minimize the impact to our customers."

Maddy O'Donnell, 23, of Rochester has noticed her mail is being delivered every other day. And, the estimated arrival date of gifts she ordered online May 2 for her boyfriend's upcoming birthday has been pushed back from late May to early June, when she will be out of town.

"It’s irritating," she said, "but understandable."

The delays are due in part to staffing shortages because postal workers have fallen ill, been ordered to quarantine, or called off work to care for family members. Nationwide, the postal service said Friday that 2,546 employees out of its 630,000-member workforce have tested positive for COVID-19, "with some deaths."

In southeast Michigan, a region that has been among the hardest-hit by the coronavirus in the country, the impact on postal workers has been significant.

The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) Detroit District Area Local 295, which represents approximately 1,500 clerks, drivers, mechanics and maintenance employees of the postal service, has lost several of its members to COVID-19, according to Local 295 President Keith Combs: "It’s been devastating to our members."

And, at least two APWU Local 480-481 members have died of the virus, said executive vice president Steve Wood, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself. The local represents some 2,000 members in an area that encompasses communities from Chelsea to Port Huron. 

Local union leaders contend the postal service did not act quickly enough to provide personal protective equipment to employees or put measures in place to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading in mail facilities. The postal service noted that it’s distributing face masks to its 30,000-plus locations.

Combs and Wood both said it took too long to happen. And union leaders would like to see the postal service check employees’ temperatures when they come to work and more strictly enforced mask-wearing, especially because some postal jobs do not allow for physical distancing.

Additionally, the postal service says it is requiring its "non-public facing" employees to wear face coverings; requiring face masks in communities where local authorities mandate it; asking customers to cover their faces; cleaning its facilities more frequently; and allowing "liberal" use of its leave policies for employees affected by the coronavirus, among other measures.

Other delivery providers, such as UPS and Amazon, say they have implemented similar measures. UPS recently reported it is not experiencing package delivery delays at this time: "We continue to operate in line with demand and the needs of our customers, except where limited by government restrictions," the company said in a statement.

The provider in March suspended its service guarantee, which refunds shipping charges for late deliveries. FedEx, for its part, says it "continues to experience significant residential volume at peak-like levels." 

To address the increase in volume, FedEx is taking such steps as expanding its Sunday deliveries, hiring additional staff, and working with some customers to sort their orders at the FedEx facility closest to the consumer receiving the package, bypassing sorting hubs. The company expects to make residential deliveries available on Sunday to 95% of the U.S. by September.

Amazon, a giant in the e-commerce industry, has reportedly had trouble maintaining the one- and two-day delivery speeds it touts. But the company says it still has one- and two-day shipping available for many items.

"We removed quantity limits on products our suppliers can send to our fulfillment centers," Amazon spokesmn Timothy Carter said in a statement. "We continue to adhere to extensive health and safety measures to protect our associates as they pick, pack and ship products to customers, and are improving delivery speeds across our store."

Amazon did not reply to a follow-up request for more detailed information about how the coronavirus has affected delivery times.

At least eight Amazon warehouse workers have died of COVID-19, NBC News reported Thursday. Amazon workers, who have met resistance to union-organizing efforts, have pushed for better health and safety protections in the company's facilities. 

The company has noted that it is providing PPE to employees, has enhanced the cleaning of its facilities, and put in place measures that allow for workers to physically distance themselves, among other measures. 

Meanwhile, the postal service is grappling with steep drop-offs in letter mail volume because of the pandemic, threatening the financial viability of the agency that does not receive taxpayer funding. The agency is funded by the sale of postage and other products.

Funding for the organization has been the subject of a political disagreement in Washington. Congressional Democrats have called for $25 billion in funding for USPS to be included in a new coronavirus relief package.

President Donald Trump has derided the postal service as a "joke" and demanded the agency raise its delivery rates if it receives federal assistance. His criticism of the postal service appears rooted, in part, to the November election. Congressional Democrats — and several states, including Michigan — have sought to expand voting-by-mail to ensure access to the polls amid the coronavirus. Trump staunchly opposes the effort. 

For the workers who continue to deliver mail and packages even as they grapple with their own coronavirus-related hardships, the political infighting is frustrating, said Wood, the union official: "Nobody wants to be called a joke. These people are working more hours than they probably have worked before."

The postal service declined to say when delivery times are expected to return to normal. Combs is hoping the agency can get caught up with deliveries in a matter of weeks, but said the pace will be dictated by how the virus trends. In the meantime, he said his members are doing their best.

"Most are in fear of catching something or taking something home to their families, but they are still doing a job they took an oath to do."


Twitter: @JGrzelewski