Five days a week, U.S. Postal Service carrier Josiah Morse arrives at the Forest Avenue post office at 6:30 a.m. to assess his route for the day.
Last Friday, a 6-foot stack of political flyers – thin, colorful advertisements from eight campaigns across the state – was waiting for Morse, intended for his West End route.
“We’re seeing a very competitive election, more than years past,” said Morse, who has worked as a city carrier for five years. “We’ve always had a lot of flyers and political ads, but this year you’re getting a lot of full-coverage flyers. Most of the ads are going to 85-90 percent of the route, and that takes a lot of time.”
This year, he added, there are noticeably more advertisements intended for all homes, regardless of the residents’ political affiliations. And the majority of flyers have specific residents and addresses, which demand more time to sort and deliver.
At the start of each day, carriers sort into metal cases to prepare mail for their routes, organizing pieces by their priority and location. Advertisements are classified as “standard” or “bulk” mail and typically have a three-day grace period once they arrive at the post office before they must be delivered.
But political advertisements, which fall under the same category, have a same-day turn around period.
“No matter how much keeps coming, it needs to go the day it comes in,” Morse said. “We can’t show favoritism.”
This season, carriers are seeing upwards of nine different flyers a day, he said, compared to two or three in previous years.
As a result, the sorting process, which used to take around two hours, more recently has taken carriers double the time to process, and it’s taking longer to deliver the flyers on the streets, too.
A record year for ballots
Campaign flyers aren’t the only election-related mail that’s weighing down carriers like Morse.
Of the 1.06 million registered voters in Maine, 41.9 percent as of Oct. 23 had requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election, according to the office of Maine’s secretary of state.
“This is definitely a record year,” Kristen Muszynski, communications director for Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said about the volume of absentee requests.
Seventy percent of those ballots, or more than 314,000, were issued by mail, and more than another 87,000 ballots had been returned by mail.
Portland also has experienced “the most requests for absentee voting,” according to city Communications Director Jessica Grondin, who called the election season “unprecedented.”
Of the approximately 61,000 registered voters in Portland, nearly half requested absentee ballots, and the city had accepted more than 21,000 ballots.
Both in Portland and across the state, more than 30 percent of registered voters have already voted.
With only one week until Election Day, Mark Seitz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local Branch 92 and the Maine State Association of Letter Carriers, promised that mail-in ballots will be delivered on time.
“If everybody in Maine voted, and you have two points in Maine to process it, we’d only have a little bit of an increase of where we’d be on a year-to-year basis,” Seitz said, adding that letter volume has dropped overall since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“The Christmas volume goes up about three times as much. Even if everybody in Maine voted twice, it would be less than the average Christmas volume,” he said.
Election Mail Task Force
To ensure that election mail is prioritized and delivered securely and on-time, the USPS enacted an expanded Election Mail Task Force at post offices across the nation on Oct. 1.
The Portland main post office, at Forest Avenue and Portland Street, distributes mail to carriers who deliver in Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth, South Portland, Cumberland Foreside and Peaks Island.
Morse has served as the appointed Election Task Force member for nearly three weeks.
The expanded directive instructs carriers and stewards to advance election mail over other marketing mail; allows for extra delivery and collection options to ensure ballots are received and delivered on Election Day, and permits overtime hours, special pickups, and late or extra trips.
“Mail-in ballots are and always have been a top priority, as far as how it’s processed, and right now, it seems to be a very simple process,” Morse said about his new responsibilities. On top of his daily route on the streets, Morse is a steward for the union, advocating for workers’ rights, and provides an extra set of eyes on political mail in the office.
By the end of his week, Morse clocked 62 hours, which is about average for his route these days, and not unprecedented for other carriers.
“My route is overburdened and I find myself working 10 or 11 hours just on my route, and a lot of times I’ll be asked to do an hour somewhere else, too,” he said. “If you’re doubling your time in the office before you even get on the street, you’re pushing back your finish time, too.”
Local Branch 92 has 640 members and represents 31 offices in 50 Maine towns and cities.
There are approximately 1,000 city carriers in Maine, who have a starting hourly salary of $17.29. Of the city carriers, postal workers can opt to be a regular City Carrier Assistant or move up to a carrier who qualifies for overtime. But these days, CCAs have been working overtime hours, too, sometimes clocking 70-80 hour weeks.
For overtime carriers, working more than 10 hours a day means double time, and more than 12 hours in a day or 60 in a week is a contractual violation.
“Most carriers will stay (to work overtime hours) because they don’t want to run the risk of the mail not being delivered,” Morse said. “They’re doing it because they want to deliver the mail. It’s important.”
Packages pile up
Since the pandemic began, the volume of packages the USPS handles has doubled, and in some cases tripled, compared with last year.
“It’s taking us a lot longer to deliver the parcels,” Morse said. “Say you have a route that averages around 50 packages a day, now it’s 100. It takes longer to load the trip and add extra trips to the truck.”
If a carrier works overtime, it could take 10 or 12 hours to complete the route on the street, not including the earlier time spent sorting in the office, which is “not unheard of, but it’s not completely typical,” according to Seitz.
The routes, which were designed to last eight hours, have not been reevaluated to include the growing volume of packages from online orders or the extra time it takes to deliver the political flyers.
A decade ago, Morse’s West End route averaged eight parcels; on Monday he delivered 50 in the first fifth of his route.
“We have more CCAs than we’ve ever had, but it might not feel like it on certain days because of the amount of packages we’re receiving,” he said.
Updating the routes to adjust for the additional time it takes to deliver a higher volume of packages could be one solution to the extended days. That would create more open positions for an already understaffed institution.
“We haven’t had enough carriers across the country in at least 10 years,” said Seitz, noting that the carrier position is one of the few that can’t be automated. “We’re constantly hiring more carriers.”
The carrier position is the only growing position – with over 1 million deliveries that get added across the country – but still has a 70 percent turnover rate nationally. The retention rate is around 43 percent for Local 92, Seitz said.
Now the union has a liberal leave policy in effect, which allows more workers to be absent for a workday or a portion of the workday due to pandemic-related factors, such as feeling sick, quarantining, or lack of available child care.
Roughly 10 percent of the carrier workforce is out nationally because of factors related to COVID-19.
Despite the notable increase in the volume of political flyers and packages since the pandemic began, carriers across the state are working hard to ensure that the USPS continues to deliver.
“As far as we’re concerned, the more mail that’s created the more people have full-time jobs,” Seitz said. “We want more mail, we’ll take more mail.”
Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.