U.S. Postal Service customers across the country have been receiving a notification that often alarms and perplexes them: The message says packages they expected delivered to their home or business are being held at a post office “at the request of the customer.”
But customers who are receiving these notifications never requested that their mail be held.
The packages are delayed because of broad changes Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has implemented to the nation’s mail delivery operations, including policies that slow down package delivery. When a mail carrier cannot deliver a package on the day it was scheduled because their shift is ending, postal workers say, the system sometimes generates a misleading “held at the request of the customer” message.
Although the reality is that the mail carrier will deliver the package, sometimes the next day, customers say the message has prompted them to visit the post office to claim their items — even if they are concerned about venturing out because of the coronavirus pandemic — and has undermined their faith in mail delivery leading up to the 2020 election.
“Shouldn’t it say that the carrier couldn’t deliver it today because time ran out? … The message is incorrect,” said Jamaal Vetose of Baltimore County, who had lost his mask and visited the post office without it to pick up his package containing a new one after receiving the erroneous notification.
Postal Service spokespeople did not answer questions from The Washington Post about why customers are getting this message. One spokesman said he could not answer without seeing the tracking numbers. When The Post provided tracking numbers from two packages, the Postal Service did not respond.
Vetose, who works for an investment firm, teleworks most of the week but goes to the office on Mondays. He was anxiously tracking a mask that was supposed to be delivered on a Friday.
Late Friday evening, he saw the message saying his package was being held at his request. “I’m not sure if the carrier ran out of time, or to be honest they decided they didn’t want to deliver it,” he said. “I definitely didn’t request them to hold it.”
He lined up at his local post office first thing Saturday morning, ashamed of the looks that he got from fellow customers when they saw he wasn’t wearing a mask. “I’m here to pick the mask up. It was supposed to be delivered to my house,” he told a few people in explanation.
Vetose said the USPS employee at the counter told him that he need not have come — the carrier would probably have delivered the mask later that day.
Postal employees in D.C., Maryland and California all told The Post or have told their customers that those who receive the notification do not need to come to the post office in person.
DeJoy, whose cost-cutting measures have provoked congressional hearings and the threat of a lawsuit by more than 20 states against the Postal Service, has said the changes are needed to fix the struggling mail delivery system.
Democrats say the rapidly implemented measures could make it difficult to deliver mail-in ballots to voters this November.
Under pressure, DeJoy has pledged to prioritize ballot delivery and agreed to hold off on some changes until after the election. But others remain in place — including strict schedules for trucks and mail carriers to set off on their routes, even if mail is running late or hasn’t been sorted yet. DeJoy told members of Congress that he would not reverse his ban on extra trips to deliver more mail, and hundreds of mail sorting machines that have been removed will not be reinstalled.
But most customers don’t know the cause of the delays. All they know is that their mail is taking longer — and packages are apparently being held.
When Missy Metcalf of Soquel, Calif., received one of the erroneous notifications, she went to her post office three days in a row — even though she lives with her immunocompromised boyfriend and has mostly stayed home during the pandemic for his protection. She even bought a second refrigerator so she wouldn’t have to go to the grocery store often.
Hoping for a treat to relieve the boredom of long months cooped up inside, Metcalf ordered about $250 worth of makeup online. When she was told her expensive purchase was being held at the post office, she reluctantly went to get it.
At the counter, “The guy shrugged it off and said, ‘That just means he probably didn’t want to deliver it,’ ” Metcalf said. She came back the next day, and the day after that, again in vain. Finally, the package arrived in her mailbox.
“Obviously there are lies being told to me,” she said.
Some customers who have received the notifications say that the experience has changed how they will use the mail system going forward. Lauren Fant, a high school teacher in Davenport, Fla., said she had been encouraging her friends for months to vote by mail in this year’s elections. But then she ordered a bevy of items online, including cleaning supplies for her classroom before going back to school. And twice, she got a notification that her packages were being held.
Florida’s primary was held last week, and Fant decided she didn’t trust the mail after all. “I was afraid my ballot wasn’t going to get counted. I don’t want to seem like a conspiracy theorist, but maybe I shouldn’t be telling people to vote by mail,” she said.
Her asthma has been troubling her lately and she’s worried about coronavirus, but she voted in person anyway.
And she made one more trip: She normally orders her asthma medication by mail, but she was concerned it would be delayed, too. “What if I need my inhaler and it doesn’t show up? All these stupid scenarios that shouldn’t even be a worry went through my head,” she said.
Pandemic or not, she didn’t want to entrust a package to the Postal Service again. She went to the pharmacy in person.