Last holiday season was far from the most wonderful time of year for the US Postal Service: sick and quarantined workers, a flood of packages from shoppers trying to set foot in stores, and last-minute dumps of packages from overwhelmed private shippers.
Postal workers who remember packages and letters piled up in distribution centers are better prepared this time around as they prepare for another pandemic crisis. But low product inventories, and disruptions in port and supply chains are creating new uncertainty about how to deliver gifts.
Already, workers are seeing a jump in holiday packages that began several weeks ago.
“A lot of workers are saying, ‘Oh no. Here we go again,'” said Scott Adams, the local president of the American Postal Workers Union in Portland.
The US Postal Service and private shippers UPS and FedEx are ramping up their hiring — bringing on about 230,000 temporary workers — and taking other steps to make sure they don’t get overwhelmed by packages.
About 3.4 billion parcels are expected to arrive nationwide this holiday season, representing an estimated increase of about 400 million over last year, said Satish Jindal of Pennsylvania-based ShipMatrix, who analyzed shipping package data.
When cards and letters are included, the US Postal Service said it would deliver more than 12 billion items.
“The pandemic is still here. Supply chain is a challenge that is going to affect how people shop and how products move,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents more than 200,000 postal workers.
Jindal said that despite the uncertain situation, the Postal Service, UPS and FedEx are in a better position to handle peak volumes, and several trends may work in their favour.
Jindal said more people are shopping in stores than last year, and people are placing online orders first because they are well aware of supply chain problems. In addition, with workers returning to offices, fewer office supplies are being shipped to homes, he said.
Most importantly, shippers are adapting after their tough and difficult experience last year, he said.
US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who faced criticism last year but reported timely improvements and narrowing operating losses this month, says the service is prepared for a crisis.
“We’re ready, so send us your packages and your mail,” he said.
A year earlier, more than a third of Postal Service first class mail arrived late by the time Christmas arrived.
Tractor-trailers loaded with mail lay idle outside some postal sorting facilities. Packages and letters pile up in distribution centers. In many instances the delay escalated into days and then weeks.
Two things were painfully clear. More workers and more space were needed – and both are being addressed.
To control volume, the Postal Service is moving more than 30,000 non-carrier employees into the ranks of carrier employees by peak season, hiring 40,000 seasonal workers, and 100 to ensure space for parcels. Leasing additional space at multiple locations. ,
The Postal Service installed more than 100 new package sorting machines in early November, part of a planned investment of $40 billion over 10 years. Also, more than 50 package systems capable of sorting large packages are expected to be implemented before December. Combined, these expand capacity to an additional 4.5 million packages per day, officials said.
UPS, for its part, is hiring more than 100,000 seasonal employees nationwide and continues to add aircraft and automation. It expects about 90% of its packages to flow through automated facilities by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, FedEx is in the process of expanding its nationwide workforce to 90,000 across its operating companies. Most of those new employees are expected to stay after the holidays, the company said.
Despite all that extra staff, shippers agree that this isn’t the year for shoppers to procrastinate.
“Get your holiday shopping done as soon as possible,” UPS spokesman Jim Meyer said.