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Colorado’s tiny mountain post offices are hamstrung — for the second straight holiday season

Last year’s nightmares went unfixed, amplifying problems when the coronavirus sent retail shopping online, coupled with a spike in deliveries, to spectacular highs

Loaded down with packages a father and son make their way to the post office in Crested Butte, Colorado on Dec. 12, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt is getting that anxious feeling again when he makes his daily trek to the post office.

A yellow slip in his post office box usually means a long wait in a line to retrieve a package. Just like last year, the line sometimes wraps around the outside of this town’s cramped post office on Elk Avenue in frigid temperatures and snow squalls.

“Instead of saying ‘Oh, boy, you have a package,’ you say ‘Oh no,’” Schmidt said about what has become a seasonal woe. 

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Postal problems in Colorado’s small resort towns have hit another meltdown this year after a year when no improvements were implemented and a pandemic stacked more demand and more challenges on top of the load at already overrun post offices.

This year, the entire U.S. Postal Service system is sharing in the pain that small-town post offices have faced in recent years.

“This has been an extraordinary year of unprecedented challenges given the COVID-19 pandemic, and the postal service has been experiencing significant volume increases thanks to increased shopping from home and reduced travel to loved ones,” James Boxrud, the USPS western states’ communication manager, wrote in response to questions about postal problems in Colorado.

The pandemic has sparked an increase in online ordering that includes Christmas gifts. Nationwide, the volume of parcels has jumped 14% during the busiest time for package deliveries. The research firm eMarketer projects online shopping to reach $795 billion this year. That is a 30% increase from a year ago.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

At the same time, some post offices are short-staffed because postal employees are off the job due to COVID-19. Across the country, the American Postal Workers Union has tallied nearly 19,000 postal workers out sick or isolating because of the coronavirus, ProPublica reported. At least 83 workers have died from complications of COVID-19.

There are no figures available for how many of Colorado’s estimated 9,000 postal workers are out of work because of COVID-19.

What is visible to postal patrons is that packages have piled up in the back rooms at resort-town post offices from Estes Park to Crested Butte, where regular visits to the local post office are part of the way of life. Lines are sometimes interminable while hours have been shortened. Christmas gifts aren’t arriving in time to be under trees. Even worse, crucial items like prescription medicines and benefit checks are arriving late.

Residents of Crested Butte,wait in a long lines at the post office. Without home delivery in this small mountain community residents must visit the post office to get their mail and pick up packages. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“This has bubbled to the top as a hot-button issue again. This does continue to be an issue in ski towns,” said Margaret Bowes, executive director of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.

Last year, the association conducted a survey of resort towns and found that most were having problems. There has been no follow-up survey this year, but complaints have been making their way around the circuit of local officials.

“All of my information at this point is anecdotal, but it seems like little has changed for us,” said Crested Butte Town Manager Dara MacDonald. MacDonald said she has basically thrown up her hands this season after trying repeatedly for the past few years to get the post office and Amazon to make changes that would improve mail delivery in Crested Butte. She has tried at the state and national level. And she has attempted to get action locally. That effort has been stymied by the fact that the local postmaster has refused to talk to town officials — or to the media.

Crested Butte does not have widespread home mail delivery, so postal patrons, like Schmidt, make the daily trek to retrieve their mail. Amazon packages add to the problem because the online retail giant relies on the post office to deliver packages at the local level. “Deliver,” in the case of Crested Butte, means to hold them at the post office for pick up.

 The Crested Butte post office is short-staffed, but not so badly as Estes Park. The post office there had to cut back on hours just as the holiday mailing season was gearing up because so many employees were out sick — or staying home to care for children or other dependents. They qualify to do that under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The pandemic employee shortage came at a time when Estes Park was still reeling from wildfires that disrupted mail delivery this fall. Complaints to the Estes Park Trail-Gazette newspaper detail hour-and-a-half-long waits in line, lost packages and cluster mail boxes standing open and unlocked.

Earlier this month, the Estes Park post office was open only from noon to 5 p.m. Normal hours were recently reinstated with new hires and with help from neighboring post offices, Boxrud said. 

Throughout all that, the department known for its neither-snow-nor-rain-nor-heat motto remains the federal agency most trusted by the American public.

“We have literally kept America connected this year, and although it has been challenging, it has been rewarding to see the outpouring of support from our customers,” Boxrud said.

That support has not been shared at the top levels of government.

 The postal service has suffered long-term financial shortfalls (it lost nearly $9 billion in 2019) that have only grown worse under President Trump. He has called the agency “a joke” as he kneecapped it financially to slow down mail-in and absentee voting. He named a Republican fundraiser, Louis DeJoy, as the new postmaster general this summer. DeJoy promptly cut overtime for postal workers, banned extra mail delivery trips, and removed some sorting machines from postal facilities.

Service suffered with more than a 7% delay in first-class mail from June when the policies were enacted, until November, when DeJoy’s policies were rescinded.

Mayor Schmidt said those national storms have tempered his activism on local post office problems. He is planning to wait to see who replaces DeJoy in the incoming Biden administration before he bothers to do more change-pushing at the federal level.

In the meantime, he and MacDonald express their gratitude for the overworked local postal employees who are trying to do what they can from a tiny, historic post office serving a quadrupling of customers. They can even laugh about it — a little.

A joke has been passed around town recently in what has become a record-setting frustrating postal year for Crested Butte: The best place to locate the largest group of the local citizenry at any given time — for something like coronavirus testing or vaccinations — would be to look at the line at the post office.

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