In late November, Corinne Baker of White Plains, New York, arranged to ship her cousin — who recently relocated from New York to Seattle — some New York bagels in a care package since neither planned to travel over the holidays.
She paid an extra $20 for expedited postal service shipping, but the tracking on the package stopped two weeks ago and as of January 11, the bagels have yet to arrive.
“It would have been the first time I was early with [her] gift in years,” Baker said.
She’s not the only one waiting. Holiday decorations might be put away, but many Americans still have gifts in transit with the U.S. Postal Service, which is dealing with unprecedented volume and reduced staffing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Postal Service delivered a record amount of packages this holiday season in the midst of the pandemic, which significantly impacted our workforce availability. Capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail also led to temporary delays,” Kim Frum, a spokesperson for the United States Postal Service, wrote to Yahoo Money. “These challenges were felt by shippers across the board.”
‘Safety protocols in place’
Ordinarily, carriers plan for peaks by adding seasonal workers to their fleets, but adding more workers in warehouses was more challenging in the pandemic era, according to one expert.
Keeping health and safety at the forefront, carriers “cannot have their staff running at full capacity because they have safety protocols in place,” said Alejandro Toriello, an associate professor in industrial engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology with an emphasis on supply chain management and logistics.
Unforeseen factors and capacity disruptions happen even under regular circumstances, but Toriello said that operating a nationwide or global network under the constraints of an airborne pandemic doesn’t make matters easier.
‘A surge in demand’
The USPS also didn’t appear to plan on increased shipping, Toriello said, so there was a “mismatch” over anticipated holiday season volume and capacity, contributing to the delays.
“One possibility is that there was a surge in demand and that there was just a misalignment between the capacity that the carriers planned for and the actual demand,” he said.
Carriers use predictions and forecasts to inform their workforce, capacity, and capital needs, but for as sophisticated as those models are, it’s still a guessing game. Little can done once demand is outpacing the forecast.
“Once the volume exceeds what you can carry through your network on time, you're going to have these delays,” he said, “and there might be some even some cascading, which might be something like what's happening.”
‘The tub can start emptying out’
The big question for Americans waiting on packages is when they can expect them to arrive.
“Eventually,” Toriello said, comparing the backlog to a clogged sink with water pooling faster than the drain can take it out.
“That's what's happening, roughly speaking, with the carrier's network over the holiday,” he said. “This big peak in demand is overwhelming the amount of stuff that can be pushed through the system and so stuff’s backing up.”
The post-holiday slump historically allows the system to return to a steady state, and “then the tub can start emptying out again,” he said.
Frum said USPS employees are working “around the clock to deliver all packages and mail” in the system to resolve these “temporary delays.”
The scene is unlikely to repeat next holiday season, Toriello said, as long as the vaccination rollout proceeds and normal workflows can resume.
“Like many other things about 2020, it [was] just a very unusual year,” he said, “and among many other things, hopefully we will not have to deal with that combination of factors again.”