The Duluth mail processing center on the 2800 block of West Michigan Street remains fully staffed - but the delivery time of letters it handles appears to be falling behind the U.S. Postal Service’s new two-day local standard.

“You talk about frustrating,” said James Linder, a local landlord who was hit with almost $400 in penalties from the city on payments that featured a postmark later than Linder expected.

Linder oversees single- and multiple-family dwellings in the city. He said he mails quarterly payments and biannual taxes on the last day of the quarter. After he mailed his payments May 15, the letters later reached the city postmarked May 16.

“It’s something I’ve done forever,” Linder said. “I generally mail on the last day; it’s cash management is what it is. I got there before 3 o’clock to put it in the chute and I got a letter from the city saying I was postmarked the 16th.”

Earlier this year, as part of sweeping changes in the way the USPS conducts business in the Northland, Duluth’s last mail collection time was moved to 3:15 p.m., up from 8 p.m. Linder said he thought he had made the new cut.

But postmarking is no longer done at the Duluth mail processing center, a casualty of moving first-class sorting operations from Duluth to Eagan, Minn., earlier this year.

Despite the move, the Duluth processing center maintains its roughly 78 employees, who are left to do “final sortation” and sequencing for incoming letters headed to ZIP codes starting with 556, 557 or 558, a Postal Service spokesman told the News Tribune.

“What they’d like to do is abolish all mail processing out of Duluth but they ran into a roadblock because they don’t have jobs for the workers in the Twin Cities,” said Kurt Waite, a Duluth processing center employee who has been among the most vocal critics of the Postal Service consolidation plan, titled “network rationalization.”

One of the Postal Service’s selling points for network rationalization was that it would include no layoffs of union workers. Thus, the workers remain at the center, conducting only a portion of their old jobs.

New standards

The Postal Service, in a document titled “Key Facts on Network Rationalization,” never mentioned its effects on postmarking.

“It really angers me,” Linder said. “Especially this first time around. With change like this, somebody with some kind of heart should be able to say, ‘Going forward, this is how it’s going to be figured.’”

The Postal Service did make clear that its first-class delivery standard was being extended nationwide from one to two days locally and three days for mail delivered elsewhere in the contiguous United States.

It’s a standard that would appear to be flagging locally.  

The News Tribune conducted an informal survey of the new local first-class delivery standard, mailing 12 total letters from four locations in the Northland - three each, on three different days, from collection boxes at the Federal Building and at Mount Royal in Duluth, as well as in Cloquet and Superior.

The letters were mailed after regular workday hours, meaning the letters missed the new, earlier final collection time. The average return on those letters - mailed back to the News Tribune - was three to four days, with some letters taking longer, if measured from when they were dropped in a mailbox to when they were delivered.  

But Minneapolis-based Postal Service spokesman Pete Nowacki disputed those findings. Given a chance to review the News Tribune’s envelopes, he said that by Postal Service calculations, nine of the 12 met the two-day standard with the remaining three letters arriving in three days.

He said an independent contractor measures the Postal Service network each day, but doesn’t begin calculating mail times until the letters are collected from their boxes, which can be almost a full day after a person drops a letter into a box if it’s mailed after the final collection time each day.  

Regarding the News Tribune’s letters, “their service ‘clock’ did not begin until the following day,” Nowacki said.

By Nowacki’s count, a letter mailed from the Federal Building on June 3 - a Wednesday - and arriving back across West First Street to the News Tribune on June 8 took three days. Nowacki said his “industry standard” count didn’t include the day it was dropped off or the interim Sunday, when there is no delivery.  

Still, he said, “The (three-day) result was not good enough and not up to our usual performance. These results can be improved upon and that is our goal - to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations.”

“Horror stories”

When asked what its independent contractor indicated about Northland mail standards, Nowacki said the Postal Service’s service performance score was 92.94 percent on-time for the quarter ending June 30.

Waite, the processing center employee, disputed that.   

“I did the same type of test you did,” Waite told the News Tribune, “and it came back to Duluth with the same count of four to five days per letter.”

Waite said he is seeing “horror stories” unfold, with some letters taking seven to 14 days to be delivered. He explained that letters with shaky handwriting, errant ZIP codes or incorrect house and street numbers are especially troublesome. Those letters used to be put into a special bin in Duluth, hand-checked by staff members and delivered with expediency, he said. Now, letters featuring some form of human error are being run redundantly through sorting machines in Eagan.

“When the machines finally admit ‘this letter can’t be handled by machine,’ it goes to someone working light duty who has trays and trays of similar first-class letters,” Waite said. “It turns into seven to 14 days. We’re pulling up numerous examples.”

Waite cited hope for the Duluth mail processing center in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations, which in June voted in favor of restoring first-class delivery standards to previous levels. Such a move would necessitate bringing the Duluth facility fully online again.

“Right now it’s in Congress’ hands,” he said. “If they voted to restore service, they would have to return all processing of outgoing and incoming mail to Duluth.”

For 23 years, Waite said, he’s been a proud postal employee.

“For less than 50 cents you could mail a letter across the nation in about two days,” he said.

Now, he said, “it’s embarrassing.”