The Palo Alto division of the United States Postal Service is not delivering on services, and some customers and employees are placing the blame on management and a lack of accountability, not just on budget cuts.
The downward trend began a year ago, with lost packages, misdirected mail, long lines for passports and unresponsive management, according to customers. Employees, who spoke with the Weekly on condition of anonymity, allege the issues are systemic and rooted in a lack of internal coordination and supervisors who are unwilling to take responsibility.
Service got worse in early fall when Palo Alto's postmaster, Dean Maeda, was sent to Los Angeles for a few months. In early October, 20 people stood in line at the main post office on Bayshore Road until 9:20 a.m. nearly an hour after the office was set to open because the clerk who usually opens the window was stuck in traffic. A manager did not want other workers to open the windows, employees said.
Workers in Palo Alto's downtown branch said business customers got irate while Maeda was away when the clerks ran out of business-appropriate coils and sheets of stamps. Clerks had only Batman stamps available because the person in charge neglected to order the stamps. Business customers were walking out, one employee said.
Some customers said they have noticed the deterioration, but worse, they couldn't reach anyone for answers.
"There is no accountability," said Dan Rubinstein, who works in Palo Alto. "If you want to complain, there is no receptionist. The only person who can summon the manager is the person I want to complain about."
Rubinstein said he waited for 45 minutes with seven other families to get passports for his children. The person in charge of passports was out to lunch, and staff did not know when the person would return, he said.
The problems recently prompted a long-running discussion on Palo Alto Online's Town Square.
"One day a few weeks ago, I called the main post office 24 times (yes, 24 times!) throughout the day and no one ever picked up the phone!" a Midtown resident wrote.
"Today, I waited for a package from Amazon that would be delivered through USPS. ... The mail never came, but I received a text message stating that the package had been delivered," she reported.
A person identifying himself as a Crescent Park resident said that substitute carriers have misdelivered mail, didn't leave a notice when packages were being held, or staff couldn't find the package because the information wasn't filled out correctly.
"The final straw was getting an email notice that the package was delivered, going down to the mailbox (at the post office) and finding it unlocked and open. ... I waited for a 'floor supervisor' to become available after 10 a.m. (more like 11 a.m.) to complain, but it hasn't improved service. If I buy anything from Amazon this Christmas, I'll probably use anything but USPS delivery," he said.
But others said they have had good service.
"We are very happy with the USPS. Our mailman is always cheerful and super nice. I send many packages via USPS Priority Mail and they have all been delivered on time," another Crescent Park resident wrote.
Postal workers' unions have blamed some of the service's woes on Congress, which they say created a financial crisis for the organization. In 2006, Congress mandated that USPS "pre-fund" retiree health benefits, resulting in a $5 billion annual allotment that union leaders say has caused harmed funding of services and staffing.
The Palo Alto main office used to have five clerks; now there are two. There have been no clerk or carrier cuts in the past six months, said Maeda, who returned last week. He did not specify how many positions have been eliminated in the past year, when customers said service quality began to dive.
Systemic problems that are causing delays in incoming mail are also a problem on the Peninsula, an employee said.
Mail that is sorted separately, such as flats, letters and packages, sometimes does not come in on time, forcing carriers to have to wait for one batch or another and delaying delivery, the employee said.
USPS has also shifted its hiring to more City Carrier Assistants (CCAs). Many of these workers have little training and no job security, according to a Sept. 23, 2013, story in PostalMag.com, an online magazine for postal workers.
A Palo Alto employee said the assistants work late because the mail comes in late.
"I feel sorry for them. They are working late at night, often until 8 or 9 o'clock. In the dark, it takes two to three times longer to finish one street," the employee said.
Augustine Ruiz Jr., a regional spokesman for USPS, said in an email that he has brought the customers' concerns to the attention of the postmaster, his manager and the district manager.
"Service breakdowns are of serious concern to us because that is what we provide service. We are looking into the customer services issues you have brought to our attention, and they will be addressed by the appropriate and respective managers," he said.
On Wednesday, Maeda acknowledged some of the problems that occurred while he was away. The supervisor assigned to run clerk operations had failed to get clerks up to the window to service the customers, he said through the USPS spokesperson.
"I apologize for our lack of service and will review with the supervisor responsible," Maeda said. "I will work to get service restored to levels prior to my departure."
The branch has now instituted an appointments-only policy for passports. A new passport center in San Francisco just opened to accommodate people when a large group of customers needs passports, he said.
Customers with complaints can call 1-800-ASK-USPS. Issues will be resolved within 24 hours, he said.
"If customers are not getting appropriate responses, they can call our office at 650-321-1423. If they are still not getting any response they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org," he said.