By Jennifer Smith 

Surging e-commerce volumes during the coronavirus pandemic are straining the U.S. Postal Service's parcel network as staffing shortages and backlogs in hard-hit areas slow deliveries.

The problems have delayed some packages for days and even weeks, shippers and consumers say, holding up orders at a time when many people are shopping more online to avoid infection with the virus.

The slow deliveries have complicated business for e-commerce sellers who rely on the Postal Service to ship packages at affordable rates, and tracking services have added to the frustrations, with some items appearing to get stuck at certain locations or vanishing altogether.

"Updates on locations of almost all of our packages are either not available, they do not get scanned [or are] sent back without notification," said Ivy Kami of Colorado Springs, Colo., who sells jewelry and gifts through an online store called Boutique Alosia LLC. "Long wait times and frustrated customers have not been fun for e-commerce sellers like myself."

Business for Luke Marion, co-owner of MIgardener, an online garden center based in Port Huron, Mich., soared after the pandemic hit, but transit times for USPS shipments to his customers in some cases doubled or even tripled in recent weeks, he said. Tracking information showed that about 30% to 40% of packages he shipped to his customers in Michigan would go out of state first, which Mr. Marion attributed to problems at a postal distribution center in Detroit.

"There is a whole network that is bogged down," he said, "and it's not the [mail] carriers' fault."

Like private delivery giants United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp., the Postal Service is coping with unexpected holiday-level package volumes as the pandemic adds to operational and financial stresses. UPS is imposing extra fees to help offset those costs, while FedEx is limiting the number of items some retailers can ship from certain locations.

Coronavirus has also taken a toll on postal workers. About 2,830 of the Postal Service's 630,000 employees have tested positive for Covid-19, a spokeswoman said, "with some deaths." Unions representing postal workers said this week that more than 60 workers have died.

The Postal Service is focused on keeping its employees and the public safe while they handle shipments such as medicines, supplies and benefits checks, the spokeswoman said. Those workers provide "a vital public service that is a part of this nation's critical infrastructure."

She said the Postal Service, like "other delivery companies, has experienced some service disruptions in a few locations domestically, including Chicago, New York and New Jersey, due to the pandemic," and is working to "match the increased workload, including hiring based on local needs."

The Postal Service's on-time delivery of parcels from businesses to homes has declined in recent weeks, according to ShipMatrix Inc., a software provider that analyzes shipping data.

Between April 19 and May 23, the Postal Service delivered 68.2% of priority mail packages on time, down from 87.4% between March 1 and April 18. For first-class packages, 84.2% were delivered on time between April 19 and May 23, compared with 92.9% in the earlier period.

UPS delivered 96.5% of business-to-consumer shipments on time between April 19 and May 23, according to ShipMatrix, while FedEx Ground delivered 86.9% of such packages on time during that period.

"The parcel volumes have gone up, we are probably working at a holiday volume rate, but we're doing it with about a 74% staffing [level]," Dwight Burnside, a mail handler at a USPS processing and distribution center in Merrifield, Va., said in a union-organized press call this week.

Write to Jennifer Smith at jennifer.smith@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 30, 2020 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.