USPS woes are reaching ‘crisis levels’ in several Colorado communities. Can the state’s Congress members help?

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The main Post Office in Castle Rock, Feb. 3, 2023.

Erich Swartz’s mother sends him holiday cookies every year. But after waiting two hours in line at the Dillon post office to pick up this year’s batch, he’s rethinking the tradition.

“I had to tell her, like, 'Whatever you do, do not send them to the post office because I've gotta stay in the line for at least an hour just to get these things,’” said the Summit County resident.

The Dillon Post Office used to be open 24 hours a day so people could access their boxes. But due to vandalism, it’s now only open during limited times. 

Swartz, who has lived in the area for close to 20 years, said post office problems have been persistent. And it has only gotten worse as more people have shifted to ordering things online during the pandemic.

“You talk to people around the neighborhood, around town and they're like ‘Yep, tried to get ahold of (the) postmaster and, you know, no response,’” he explained. “And then you escalate that. People have sent emails, myself included, to our board of county commissioners and explained this problem, and they will try and contact the postmaster and no response.”

Most people in Colorado expect their mail to arrive at their door six days a week without a problem. But some communities are struggling to get just that for a variety of reasons.  

From Castle Rock to Peyton to Silverthorne and beyond

In Castle Rock, Anne Ruybal has had so many delivery issues, she’s managed to get the cellphone number of her local postmaster and one in a neighboring county who has come to help out.

Ruybal said friends have sent Christmas cards that have not arrived.

“It's not just a few pieces of our mail, it's a few pieces of lots of people's mail. I have one neighbor who's still missing mail from October and November and December,” she said.

Cookies and cards may not seem like much to miss, but the delays can include important letters, from tax documents to jury summons or checks. Packages containing life-saving prescriptions have also gone amiss.

Mark Belles in Peyton, located in eastern El Paso County, hears all about this on the local private residents-only Facebook Group he runs.

“It's like, lost cats, lost dogs and lost mail, which is not unusual,” he said.

Like many in his neighborhood, Belles has signed up for a USPS service that sends a screenshot of the mail he’s supposed to get that day.

“They'll tell you a package is coming and people say, ‘I got confirmation that my package was delivered, but it's not here. Does anybody have it?’” he said.

And Belles actually pays for a post office box so that anything important, like his medication or anything he really cares about, goes there, instead of risking home delivery.

These types of postal issues have plagued communities around the state at different times: Westcliffe, Eagle, Crested Butte, Buena Vista, Colorado City, Steamboat Springs, Silverthorne — the list goes on.

Silverthorne Town Manager Ryan Hyland said he’s been getting calls about delivery issues daily for the last few weeks.

“Right now it's at a severe crisis level,” he said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The main Post Office in Castle Rock, Feb. 3, 2023.

The congressional delegation gets involved

Hyland’s also escalated the issue to his local Congress members: Rep. Joe Neguse and Sen. Michael Bennet.

“They're pushing really hard, but I think it demonstrates the level of this challenge when congressional representatives, you know, are struggling to get answers or to move the dial,” he said.

It's like a game of whack-a-mole. Service gets so bad in one place, local leaders and residents call their members of Congress, who write to the postmaster general about the issue, and eventually get some type of fix, only to have another mail service problem pop up elsewhere.

“This has been a longstanding issue,” said Neguse, who, like many residents, praised the efforts of frontline postal workers. “And it requires our ongoing attention. I do think it points to a larger management challenge within the USPS.”

Recently, freshman Rep. Brittany Pettersen has written to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy about problems in the communities of Buena Vista and Twin Lakes, even meeting with USPS officials, according to her office. 

Neguse has written to the District Manager for the USPS Colorado-Wyoming District about issues in his district, from Steamboat Springs to Dillon and Silverthorne, calling for immediate solutions. 

Rep. Ken Buck’s office has also gotten an increase in calls about mail problems in the last six months and has been working with USPS in his eastern Colorado district to find solutions. 

When problems emerged last year in Colorado City, south of Pueblo, Rep. Lauren Boebert also wrote to DeJoy wanting to know how the USPS plans to better serve rural areas. 

It’s been a persistent problem that Sen. Bennet has heard from people throughout Colorado for years. He also wrote to DeJoy last fall about ongoing delivery delays and service issues and encouraged USPS to use savings from the Postal Reform Act passed in March 2022, to reduce delivery delays and help communities without home delivery.

(While the Postal Reform Act had bipartisan support in Congress, the Colorado delegation split on the issue, with Democratic members supporting the bill and Republicans voting against it.)

Neguse had hoped the Postal Reform Act, which also codified six-day-a-week delivery, would have improved the situation by now.

“There were specific funding allocations in that bill that should resolve some of the workforce challenges that the USPS is experiencing, but it's not happening on a fast enough timetable,” he said.

Neguse has been deeply critical of postmaster general Louis DeJoy, including changes he instituted that many feared would lead to slower service.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The main Post Office in Castle Rock, Feb. 3, 2023.

Staffing shortages, growing communities, more packages

But separate from postal policies, Neguse and other lawmakers acknowledge the service faces a big on-the-ground challenge in recruiting and retaining a sufficient number of postal workers.

That’s been the biggest hurdle in many mountain communities, said James Boxrud, a USPS regional spokesman. “It boils down to staffing. You know, we're short as much as half of our staffing up there. And part of that's because the cost of living is so high.”

Boxrud said after a call last week with local leaders and congressional offices, they’re working with towns on worker housing solutions. But in the short term, USPS is trying to right the ship in other ways, including borrowing employees from other offices that are fully staffed.

“We usually send about two extra people to each one of these difficult offices during the week, and then we get a few extra people on the weekend that go up there and help. It hasn't been enough,” he said. “So what we just did this week was we reached out to our surrounding states of Colorado for our postal employees saying, ‘Hey, would you like to go to Colorado ski country and work?’”

There have been other issues, like space. Mountain communities are growing, with more residents getting more mail.

The Postal Service has also seen a large increase in the number of packages it has to deliver, as more people have turned to shopping online. The USPS is responsible for the last mile of delivery for companies like Amazon. And the volume of December Holiday rush is now seen year-round. 

In Crested Butte, Boxrud said they’re working with the town to build a new, larger facility, perhaps with some housing included.

Despite the Postal Service’s motto — about rain, snow and “gloom of night” — the sheer amount of snow the mountains have gotten this winter has made delivery difficult.  

Boxrud acknowledges the frustration many Coloradans are feeling.

“We apologize to our customers," he said. "We are working to go ahead and get this straightened out.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The main Post Office in Castle Rock, Feb. 3, 2023.

But frustration continues to build on the ground

“I can tell you that there are mountain communities [that] are talking about legal action. You know, we're at a point where what else can you do? We're trying to do everything that we can,” Silverthorne’s Hyland said.

He didn't elaborate further, only saying that communities are talking over options.  

For Swartz in Dillon, he just wants the USPS to operate as reliably there as it does in most parts of the state, and country. 

“I understand there's challenges in the mountains, but we just want to take the frustration out of that process. It shouldn't be a frustrating process," he said. "You should be able to go get your mail, and not have to plan hours out every day to do so.”

Until that day comes, he’s asking his mom not to send any more packages to his post office box.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The main Post Office in Castle Rock, Feb. 3, 2023.