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Mail delays wreaking havoc with bill-paying

If someone tells you that the check is in the mail, there’s a good possibility that they’re not only telling the truth but that the check will be there for a while.

The U.S. Postal Service is finding it hard to deliver mail on time — and that’s having a financial impact and causing inconvenience for many.

From social media to complaints to the Better Business Bureau, postal patrons are telling horror stories of bills that don’t arrive, payments that never show up, Christmas cards languishing in faraway places and packages making peculiar, circuitous routes home.

“The slowdown is a national issue,” said Barry N. Moore, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau in Central Virginia. “In Virginia, it’s a challenge to get it on time at all. As of today, I’m still receiving Christmas cards mailed in November.”

Attempts to contact the Postal Service were unsuccessful, but statements released by postal officials say the service has been hammered by a pandemic-led package push, a presidential election year that saw more mail-in ballots than ever and personnel shortages created by COVID-19 and quarantines.

“USPS is experiencing unprecedented volume increases and limited employee availability due to the impacts of COVID-19,” a banner on the postal service’s website reads. “We appreciate your patience.”

In Central Virginia, patience is a virtue that is wearing thin.

“At Christmas, we tracked several packages that sat in Wisconsin post offices for a month with no explanation before being delivered to us,” said Lisa Nowicki, a Greene County resident. “My parents mailed a Christmas card from Lynchburg around Dec. 22 to my daughter in Charlottesville. She received it last week. We received most of our Christmas cards that were mailed late December in Michigan in late January and on and on it goes.”

“Some of the delays are pretty severe,” Moore said. “More people are shopping online and there are more package deliveries and they’ve had staffing issues because of COVID-19. There’s more to sort and most post offices don’t have a lot of space in the sorting rooms. A lot of people in a cramped space is an easy way to spread COVID.”

Documents released as part of a federal elections lawsuit in New York show that first class letters out of the Richmond office, which processes mail to and from Charlottesville, were on time less than 50% of the time in the last two weeks of December. That reached a low of 41% just prior to Christmas.

Periodicals were delivered on time only 30% of the time through most of December with a low of less than 25% the week prior to Christmas.

The information, which was released because of the lawsuit and is otherwise considered protected proprietary information, showed most post offices in Virginia are suffering from delivery difficulty.

For some, that’s old news.

One area resident recounted a package on its way from Philadelphia to Staunton that made it to Richmond, turned around and spent a week in Ohio before finally getting to its destination. The two-day shipping order took nearly three weeks.

Virginia’s U.S. senators, Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, recently signed a joint letter to U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, decrying the service standard.

“We have heard from hundreds of our constituents that recount unacceptable delays in the delivery of everything from Christmas and birthday cards to mail-order medications and credit card bills,” the senators wrote. “Furthermore, we seek answers about operational decisions and other circumstances that have contributed to such delays and what is being done to prevent future failures.”

The delays are more than an inconvenience for some people.

One woman’s thyroid prescription took nearly three weeks to arrive, resting for some time in North Carolina. Others found themselves suddenly without insurance or facing unexpected late fees.

“I received two bills for an insurance policy that I have. The bill was due in September. I received both bills last week,” said Charlottesville resident Jeannine Goodman. “They were postmarked for the end of November. My policy was canceled for nonpayment.”

“[It’s] the worst ever! I just had to hand-deliver a rent check to my landlord because the one I sent on [Feb. 1] had yet to arrive. She lives two miles from me,” said Fred Held, of Charlottesville. “Worst part is, all my other bills will be late also, costing me penalty bucks that I don’t have to waste on stupid [stuff] that’s not my fault.”

Moore’s staff has heard similar complaints.

“One consumer sent a check to pay a bill two weeks before it was due and it didn’t get there for six weeks,” he said. “Consumers are complaining about companies charging them late fees and companies are complaining about not receiving money they’re owed.”

Moore said the Better Business Bureau does not address issues between businesses and government agencies. For businesses and consumers, he recommends open and frequent communications.

“From 2020 and on into 2021, mail delivery on time has been and continues to be a challenge. That means people paying bills by mail need to keep on top of their bank accounts,” Moore said. “The only way to avoid a problem is if you are monitoring your bank account and when you receive your bills.”

The bureau recommends using online bill paying to assure that payments are made on time.

“The problem with paying online is that there are a lot of scammers out there trying to take your money and they create websites that look legitimate,” Moore said. “It’s best to make sure you’re on the right website before you enter any of your personal information.”

Moore said there isn’t much that can be done by the average person to improve the postal service, but checking bank balances and watching for checks to be cashed will help eliminate surprise late fees.

“It’s all about communications. Consumers need to check their bank account every couple of days, not just once or twice a month,” he said. “If you’re mailing your bills, you should check every day. If after five to seven days that check has not been cashed, call the bank and find out if they’ve received the check. Then call the company and ask if they’ve received it. Ask if they will not charge a late fee until you can confirm that it’s been received and be sure to call them back.”

Moore said it is up to the consumer to take initiative.

“Mail delays are going to be a problem for a while,” he said. “Consumers can’t just sit on their hands and hope everything comes out right, especially when it comes to the mail. You have to protect your own finances.”


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