WASHINGTON. Problems with the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service have driven many Americans to the brink during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in communities that depend on the mail for essentials.
However, despite concerns from members of Congress that recent service changes have affected rural communities more than urban centers, a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found several significant differences in USPS on-time delivery rates between these regions.
“The report confirms expectations that there is little difference in service productivity between urban and rural areas,” said Angela Curtis, USPS vice president of delivery operations, in a written response to the GAO report, a government monitor.
The financial viability of the Postal Service has been on the GAO high risk list since 2009. The GAO said that in response, the Postal Service recently “implemented changes to its operations to restore financial self-sufficiency.”
New Hampshire Senator’s Request
Senator Maggie Hassan, DN.H., member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has consistently stressed the importance of the postal service to rural communities even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Hassan asked the GAO to look into productivity differences between rural and urban areas.
“I am concerned that USPS efforts to address financial and operational challenges over the past few years have disproportionately affected rural communities,” Hasan said in her January 2020 letter of inquiry to the GAO.
“I regularly hear from our constituents about a variety of mail delivery issues, from delivery times that seem longer than USPS reports to mail that doesn’t deliver at all.”
GAO auditors analyzed on-time performance for the top four USPS mail types by volume from October 2020 to December 2021.
The team specifically examined data from first-class mail, marketing mail, periodicals, and parcels. These categories collectively account for more than 90% of USPS mail volume and more than half of USPS revenue, according to a GAO report released Jan. 12.
At the national and regional levels, auditors found no differences of 5% or more in on-time delivery rates between urban and rural areas for any of the postal products examined.
At the postal county level, they found no difference of 5% or more in on-time parcel delivery rates between urban and rural areas.
The GAO indicated that in eight of the 50 postal districts across the country, the difference in the timely delivery of periodicals was 5% or more, which varied in favor of urban and rural areas.
Areas where on-time USPS periodic deliveries occurred at 5% or more in rural areas than in urban areas included Louisiana, Georgia, south Florida, northern Illinois, eastern Pennsylvania plus Delaware, and Maryland.
In Hawaii and the county that includes Massachusetts and Rhode Island, on-time periodic deliveries occurred at a rate of 5% or more in urban areas than in rural areas.
The USPS justified this discrepancy to the GAO by noting that “periods are delivered to the facility several times a day, which can lead to a personnel conflict between the package and the periodic delivery.” The USPS said it plans to increase the time it takes periodicals to reach the mail system to minimize these delays.
The GAO also found that Hawaii was the only state with an on-time delivery rate of prime and marketing mail between urban and rural areas of 5% or more, favoring urban areas.
The authors stated that the USPS attributed this difference to the fact that mail is delivered to Hawaii by boat and plane. According to USPS officials cited in the report, these forms of mail transport can lead to problems when serving in rural areas due to limited cargo space.
Lack of demographic monitoring
In the same report, the GAO determined that after the USPS made service and operational changes, administrators do not have a system in place to collect demographic impact data.
In 2021, the USPS made two nationwide service standards amendments, increasing the time carriers can spend delivering first-class mail and periodicals, as well as first-class packages. The auditors found that the USPS simulated the impact this change would have on rural areas before consulting the Postal Regulatory Commission for an advisory opinion, as required by federal law.
However, the GAO also found that after these service changes were implemented, the USPS used its existing impact monitoring software, which does not account for differences in delivery performance between urban and rural areas.
The authors of the report also looked at three major USPS operational changes that will affect rural communities in 2021. These changes included merging facilities, optimizing shipping routes, and reducing postman travel by merging priority and scheduled flights. Operational changes to the USPS do not require the approval of postal regulators.
The GAO found that while the USPS consulted with agency stakeholders on impacts to rural services prior to making these changes, they again did not track the impact on delivery efficiency after the changes were implemented. USPS officials told the GAO that because these changes will not affect deliveries to rural areas, the agency has not monitored impacts on those communities.