Business & Economy

‘Like Christmas since March’: Delivery people have busiest year ever

Mail delivery vans at the United States Postal Service carrier station in Burlington. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Package volume always picks up in December, but in 2020 the uptick started in March. With customers turning to e-commerce in unprecedented numbers, delivery people worked frantic schedules for the rest of the year.

“April, it just kind of blew up with deliveries with everyone staying home,” said Reuben Williams, who hasn’t seen a year like this since he started working for UPS seven years ago. Williams is based in Rutland and covers an area that extends up to Middlebury.

“It was like Christmastime without the good cheer,” said Karen Cox, who has been delivering mail for the past six years on a contract with the U.S. Postal Service in Chittenden. Cox said the number of packages was “unheard of.”

The postal service doesn’t have official holiday numbers yet, but spokesperson Steve Doherty said package volume had been “at or near typical holiday volumes since February.”

“While we can typically predict weekly volumes based on past trends, this year was an anomaly and we did not have any volume forecasts other than we expected to see a record number of packages this season,” he wrote in an email to VTDigger.

And that expectation was met. “The wave of packages over the holidays was historically high,” Doherty said, as people shopped from home “for even everyday basic items to avoid trips to the store.”

Cox delivered everything from toilet paper to bananas on her 250-stop route. “You could smell them through the cardboard,” she said. “Who orders bananas through the mail?”

She focused on staying healthy and taking extra precautions to avoid exposure to Covid. She didn’t get together with family members because there was no one to substitute for her if she got sick. Her normal substitute is her husband, who is now retired from the postal route he ran out of Rutland for years. But if Cox had to quarantine, then her husband would be in the same boat, leaving no one to deliver the mail.

Another mail carrier who asked to remain anonymous after receiving memos prohibiting postal carriers from speaking to the press said 15% of the postal workforce has been unavailable due to Covid issues, and 100 post office workers have died. The post office employs about 600,000 people. 

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“It’s been a pretty brutal year for a lot of people,” he said. There were “just not enough people” to handle the volume. “The hardest workers in the office and just the normal people, they got no rest; most wouldn’t have a day off for a week or two at a time,” he said. In December, he said, he worked 21 days straight.

He was working 60 to 70 hours a week, and “across the country, I talked to carriers who were working 70 to 80-something hours every week.”

While postal workers’ hourly pay rates double once they log over 10 hours in a day, they can’t incur that pay in December, the busiest month of the year. 

According to the mail carriers, the volume caused huge problems for postal sorting facilities. Cox said she’d seen instances in which plants didn’t have space to unload truckloads of packages that ended up sitting in the trucks for days until the plant could work through the backlog.  

Cox worries how all that online shopping might hurt local businesses. But some Vermont businesses have done fine online themselves.

Baird Farm in North Chittenden shipped 30% to 40% more maple syrup than last year. Jenna Baird called it a “retail online shipping frenzy. It’s been pretty nutty but also stressful.” Baird said her mom helped with packing on the busier days.

Her partner, Jacob Powsner, said there were shortages — “physical space shortage, not enough time in the day shortage, weird supply chain shortages,” such as a delay in obtaining the glass jug containers they needed to ship maple syrup. 

But both were grateful for the boost in sales. “I think people consciously have been trying to really support small businesses, local businesses,” Powsner said, and people are getting more used to ordering food online.  

Powsner and Baird work closely with the delivery people who come to their farm to pick up outgoing shipments, and have heard about the back-to-back record-breaking days from their UPS drivers.

When Williams came for an evening pickup around Black Friday, they marveled at how much he packed in the truck.

“I’ve never seen a truck packed that tight,” Baird said.

“It looked like a three-dimensional Tetris board,” Powsner said.

After their own Black Friday sale, they called UPS and the postal service, warning them to expect some 200 packages that day. “The postmaster came up midday and we loaded the back of his pickup truck,” Baird said. “It was like a sleigh.”

FedEx reported a 24% increase in peak shipping volumes between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, an unprecedented peak season. For some drivers, that meant working over 12 hours a day to cover the rush. One worker described finishing his delivery days at 10 p.m.

Nick Arduini, who works a delivery route for the U.S. Postal Service in Ludlow, describes a never-ending flow of packages, even in the New Year.

“Probably two weeks into March was when all of this began, and from that moment forward, within a month’s time we had reached package capacity of what we would be doing during the normal month of December leading up to Christmas,” Arduini said.

Over the summer numbers were steady, at around 400 a day. But after Thanksgiving, it swelled to about 700.  “And the weeks leading into Christmas, we were over 1,000 packages a day,” he said.

He said he worked an extra two or three hours per day for a month and a half to finish the deliveries on his route. Workers were moved from five days a week to six, and others worked 12- to 13-hour days, “just being able to get all of their packages and mail delivered in a single day.”

Williams, the Rutland-based UPS driver, agreed. “The holiday rush being in December, you’re always working more hours,” he said. Before the pandemic, the Rutland UPS operation had about 30 routes. That quickly grew to 42.

“It just feels never-ending,” Arduini said. “Every day you get to work and you look at how many packages there are and it never seems to be slowing down.”

Still, Arduini said, “I definitely enjoy my job, and I think every postal worker is happy to serve the community.”

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Amanda Gokee

About Amanda

Amanda is a graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in romance language and literature, with a secondary focus on global health. She grew up in Vermont and is working on a master’s degree in liberal studies at Dartmouth with a concentration in creative writing.

Email: [email protected]

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