Increased shipping costs and "troubling" delays due to staff shortages at post offices across the state have Alaskans irked by long lines, missing Christmas gifts, and groceries that arrive rotten and unsafe to eat, according to U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who is demanding an immediate meeting with the nation's postmaster general to get some answers.
In a letter to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, Begich says he's "alarmed" by the "sudden and persistent volume of complaints" his office has received from across the state related to postal delivery.
Begich notes that some Alaskans have recently been told that parcel post service is no longer available and their only option is shipping by priority mail. "If this change has in fact been made, Alaskans could be facing a rate increase of over 30 percent on packages," as well as "substantially higher grocery prices," wrote Begich in the letter dated Thursday.
Begich said he wants "immediate clarification" on whether such a change has occurred and if so, whether it affects only Alaska.
Parcel post is still available, said a store owner who often ships items to Sleetmute, a community of 100 on the upper Kuskokwim River. But the problem is that the rates for sending parcels are now the same as rates for priority mail, said Henry Hill, owner of Hill's Store and Lodge in the village.
Hill said he was recently charged 70 percent more when he tried to ship an item parcel post but was charged the priority rate. The similar pricing means everyone will ship everything by priority mail from here on out.
"It's just a disaster," said Hill, who said he had not contacted Begich's office. "That 70 percent increase in Western Alaska, that's just going to be just devastating. It's going to wipe little stores out."
If everything is sent by priority mail, packages will arrive more slowly. "Priority will be like regular parcel post," he said. "It will sit there forever. It's not going to have two-day delivery. It ain't never going to happen."
Begich, in his letter, laid out several complaints, including:
• More than 100 residents in the Yup'ik village of Quinhagak in Southwest Alaska, population 700, have signed a petition saying food has arrived rotten and unsafe to eat after bypass mail was rerouted to save money. The mail now goes through Togiak, a Bristol Bay village that has only two flights a day to Quinhagak, rather than passing through Bethel, a jet-served community with 10 flights daily to Quinhagak. The petition seeks to have the old system restored.
• Mail in some Southeast communities is experiencing serious delays because it is now processed in Juneau. Even mail sent from one Ketchikan resident to another, for example, goes to Juneau for processing first, and then returns to Ketchikan, according to Begich's letter. The same problem has occurred with villages on Prince of Wales Island. "With weather often grounding flights, this seems an unreliable method of delivery, and in fact, Postal Service officials confirmed to my staff that there has been a decline in meeting Postal Service standards for Ketchikan as a result of this change," Begich writes.
• Douglas, Auke Bay and Clam Gulch are concerned about the status of their post offices' closing. "It is imperative that Alaskans in these communities receive assurances their post offices will remain open" and that they can meaningfully comment before the Postal Service makes changes, Begich says.
• Regular mail and bypass mail is arriving late in Barrow, a city of 6,000 at the top of Alaska. "Two Native elders recently informed me they still have not received their Christmas presents because of delays in the mail," wrote Begich.
Begich said he's receiving ongoing reports of understaffed post offices in Alaska -- including in Skagway and at the Fairbanks post office on Geist Road, where lines can stretch 25 people long even after the holiday rush. Postal workers at the Fairbanks office have filed a grievance related to the employee shortage, Begich said. Also, "extraordinary delays" in filling vacancies have occurred in Craig in Southeast and Kaktovik in northeast.
Begich notes that as a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Post Office, he's committed to passing legislation to protect the Postal Service and its workers.
Begich said he understands the "unique challenges" Alaska employees face when trying to deliver the mail on time. "However, the troubling issues highlighted above are unacceptable and we must resolve them right away."
Contact Alex DeMarban at firstname.lastname@example.org.