Hundreds of packages piled up this month behind a U.S. Postal Service counter where a lone clerk faced frustrated residents who hadn’t received mail for a week in the river town of Silt — the latest outbreak of problems intensifying in once-remote parts of Colorado.
A prom dress failed to reach Buena Vista in time, the misdelivery of glass enamels ordered from Canada stalled work for an artist, and scientists at a high-elevation biological lab above Crested Butte sought alternatives to the USPS for handling time-sensitive material.
From Steamboat Springs to Salida, western Colorado residents say they rely on the postal service as never before because Amazon and other delivery trucks often don’t deliver in mountain areas. It’s a matter of being included, residents say, as part of the global economy.
But the USPS is mired in debt topping $144 billion and administrators are cutting costs, which may include closing “rural” facilities, according to a GAO report this summer.
Meanwhile, shortages of mail carriers to deliver packages and post office clerks have plagued communities across western Colorado.
“It started a month or so ago. The postmaster for this area in Rifle left, and then the deputy postmaster left. And they also were down at least two carriers,” Silt’s public works director Trey Fonner lamented, noting that his wife counts on mail to receive prescribed medicine.
When they went to Silt’s post office, they were surprised to learn four packages had arrived for them with no notices sent, Fonner said. “If a bill was to come through, we might never get it.”
USPS officials blamed mail problems in mountain towns on staffing shortages and “increased demand,” saying they’ve been on a hiring blitz, filling 3,900 positions this past year in Colorado and Wyoming. They’re scrambling to fill another 300 positions, including six carriers in the area around Rifle and Silt, agency spokesman James Boxrud said.
“We improved the cleanliness and accessibility of our offices. We have doubled our efforts to keep our post offices staffed,” Boxrud said via email.
“And while we are far from being at full strength we are in much better shape. Those efforts have paid off as regular mail service has been restored and we intend to keep it that way,” he said.
Postal service data on package volumes in the Rocky Mountain West is “proprietary,” Boxrud said, and postal officials refused to release it.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, and Rep. Joe Neguse have been pressing for meetings with Postmaster General James DeJoy in Washington D.C., demanding better service.
“It is still a problem,” Pettersen said, after sending hundreds of complaints from residents to DeJoy with a letter alerting him of “infrequent mail delivery” and urging him to “end the staffing shortages in Colorado.”
A year ago, postal woes got so bad that residents in Buena Vista protested outside their local post office. This prompted postal officials to end a practice of charging residents for post office boxes even where residents don’t receive direct delivery for free.
While providing no-fee post boxes in rural areas is an improvement, Pettersen said, “the problem is that most things cannot fit into those boxes.” And recurring postal worker shortages still lead to wrap-around lines to collect parcels for which USPS contracts with Amazon and others to provide “last-mile” delivery.
“What we want to see are systemic changes, making sure they are not leaving behind these smaller communities,” she said.
Under the Constitution, Congress has the power “to make all laws” necessary to maintain postal service, and “universal service” is legally required even in rural areas where delivery isn’t profitable.
Mountainous western Colorado historically has ranked among the hardest parts of the country for delivering mail. Starting in the 1880s, skiing postmen risked their lives to carry letters and packages over rocky passes to isolated residents in mining towns.
Rapid population growth over the past five decades has led to high expectations for swift delivery in areas that once were accepted as remote.
What could go wrong?
“Everything at every point,” said artist Evelyn Baker, 67, a 20-year resident of Buena Vista who has endured supply delivery failures and has been seeking a refund after paying fees for a post office box.
“The frustrations are rising because every time you order something you need, your only option is to have it shipped by USPS. You are on pins and needles. We are so much at the mercy of the post office,” Baker said.
When an order arrives “they put your stuff into a locker” and are supposed to place a notice or a key for access in a resident’s box, she said. But shoddy service has included mix-ups, delays, mis-deliveries, and hour-long lines to reach clerks. Baker recently walked to the Buena Vista post office four times trying to locate a $350 shipment of glass enamels. She cited the case of a local high school student who ordered a dress for her prom and received only a notice, two days before the prom, that a package was expected in Denver.
“How heart-breaking is that? For dresses for formal and semi-formal events for young girls, there’s just no place in town where that’s available. Either you drive to the city along the Front Range or else you have to order online.”
Across the mountains in Avon, Mayor Amy Phillips said increased online shopping lies at the core of the breakdowns. “It came to a head during COVID. That’s what pushed it over the top to be unsustainable” due to the “sheer volume” of packages that the postal service had to deliver, Phillips said.
Rising expectations for package delivery are reasonable, she contends, pointing out that Avon and other mountain towns now are urban – “very high density in the town core with a lot of apartments.”
“Paying $2,000 a square foot for a residence here, the same as in Manhattan, you should have the same postal service,” she said.
Town leaders have appealed to postal service supervisors to expedite hiring and relax testing. Phillips said the USPS should no longer be allowed to enter into contracts for “last-mile delivery.” She also has proposed that postal officials use their property, such as land around the post office in Vail, for the installation of package-handling hubs and for affordable housing for employees.
Around Crested Butte, “more Amazon and UPS packages are being delivered directly to homes,” which has reduced wait times this summer at the post office, Mayor Ian Billick said in an email to the Denver Post.
“We are worried about whether those improvements will be sustained,” said Billick, who also serves as director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory north of town where for nearly a century scientists from around the world have been conducting research.
“Our scientists have learned that time-sensitive materials have to be delivered using UPS or FedEx,” and for researchers relying on the USPS for personal supplies, post office “service was so bad in 2022 that we had to hire someone to stand in line to pick up mail,” he said.
“There’s no doubt that living in remote areas like Crested Butte will never be as convenient as big cities. But many of the problems our community has experienced with mail delivery, including inadequate staffing, erratic hours, charging for mailboxes despite the lack of home delivery, and lost mail, are not the result of our remote location.”
Theoretically, that approach ought to work. “But it depends on the capacity of the Postal Service to be able to deliver.”
The capacity isn’t there, he said. “This is going to be frustrating. If you have a world economy, but you cannot get everything delivered from other parts of the world, you feel a little bit left out.”
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