Local mail carrier union president Mark Seitz protests outside the Portland Main Post Office on Sun. Dec 18.
"Mark Seitz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 92 branch, at the rally in front of the Forest Ave. post office. Seitz said "morale was at an all-time low" among mail carriers because of chronic understaffing and mismanagement that has led to delays. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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As some post offices in southern Maine have bolstered staff levels by offering hiring incentives, mail delivery delays have persisted in greater Portland this winter. 

According to a postal workers’ union leader, the city’s main branch on Forest Avenue has felt the brunt of the industry’s staffing shortages in part because other regional offices have lured carriers away with higher-paying entry-level positions disproportionate to the ones available in Portland.

“It might look like they hired more people, but all they did was get people from my office to go to one of those other offices because they can become career [employees],” Mark Seitz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers’ (NALC) Local 92 branch, told the Phoenix.

Ten Maine post offices, including the Saco office (covering Saco, Biddeford and Old Orchard Beach) began offering entry-level career positions last summer and fall. Those positions offer starting rates of $22.24 an hour rather than the standard $19.33 for a carrier assistant position in Portland, according to Seitz. 

But the incentive hasn’t solved the problem, only shifted it.

“The downward spiral continues,” Seitz told the Phoenix.

Portland’s office, which Seitz said is feeling it the worst, recently lost three carriers to other offices in Maine. Saco’s office, now nearing full capacity, is in much better shape.

Stephen Doherty, a spokesman for the United States Postal Service’s Northeast Division, denied that the hiring differentials were a problem. Doherty told the Phoenix that carriers switching to a job in a neighboring community for a career position “hasn’t been an issue” because carrier assistants transitioning to career positions has been happening “fairly quickly.”

Doherty said USPS has been “aggressively recruiting,” over the last few months, but the low unemployment rate in Maine has made attracting qualified workers difficult.

But according to John Graham, a Portland mail carrier, the pay discrepancy is still a problem for the Forest Ave. office.

“Once we get notification that these offices hire [career] PTF” — referring to part-time flexible status, a job classification that entitles letter carriers to additional compensation and benefits like sick paid leave — “we lose carriers to those offices, leaving us even more shorthanded,” Graham wrote in an email.

In Graham’s 20 years on the job, it’s the worst it’s ever been, he said, and staffing is the root of it. Portland’s office has less staff than it did in 2016, he said, but package volume and the growing overall population in Cumberland County means there’s more mail to deliver and fewer people to do it.

Mail carriers in Greater Portland made their frustration known in December when they gathered in front of the Forest Ave. post office to protest chronic understaffing and poor management.

According to Seitz, Portland’s office has five full-time carrier positions open and 22 carrier assistants, or entry-level carriers, while the office should have as many as 60. In total, staff in the Portland office should be around 230 and they’re currently below 190, Seitz said.

A complaint about delivery delays in Saco prompted Sen. Angus King’s office to weigh in. King’s spokesperson Matthew Felling confirmed that the senator has been in touch with the regional postmaster about delivery delays, staffing and efforts to improve service.

According to Felling, Maine still has a higher on-time delivery rate than the national average, “but there is clearly still work to be done and it is unacceptable for anyone to go multiple days without mail delivery.”

York County Commissioner Justin Chenette has heard complaints about delays from constituents — as well as experienced them firsthand. He didn’t receive mail at all between Feb. 18 and 25, and said that it’s not unusual for him not to receive mail at all for a week or two at a time.

The dilemma should inspire a broader conversation about the value of public employees, he said.

“We can’t ignore the value that public employees provide to our society,” Chenette said. “It might be time for the pay to be commensurate with the essential role that they play. If you don’t pay mail carriers correctly, no one’s going to sign up to be a mail carrier, and then no one’s going to get mail.”



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