99 problems and the mail is one: USPS delivery problems spike in Philly neighborhoods

Complaints spiked up to 75% in some parts of the city — but not in the suburbs.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Correction appended

On his porch-lined block in Hunting Park, Charles Lanier worries over important business documents that will help his team tackle quality-of-life issues in his neighborhood.

As the executive director of the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee, Lanier often has to ask acquaintances to re-send letters or packages to his office on North Delhi Street — unsure if they’ve been lost, misdelivered or stolen right off his front porch.

He’s complained to his local post office about mail not being placed through the slot in his door, and been met with comments about understaffing. Substitute carriers take time to learn the ins and outs of a particular delivery route, he was told.

“I’m waiting on mail right now that I hope hasn’t been delivered and taken,” Lanier said. “Mail is sensitive. You deserve to know your mail will be delivered properly.”

Philadelphians lodge more than 50,000 complaints with the U.S. Postal Service about mail delivery issues annually, according to federal data. In certain zip codes, mailbox mysteries are more frequent than others.

A Billy Penn analysis of USPS data found that in each of the last five years, 30 of Philadelphia’s 48 zip codes logged at least 1,000 complaints. More than half those zip codes saw a notable jump in complaints over that same period — with the increase ranging from 25% to 75%.

Complaints up across most Philly zip codes

Delivery issues in the Hunting Park zip code where Lanier lives surged over the last half-decade. Lanier and his neighbors registered nearly 2,000 complaints with the federal mail carrier last year — up 53% from 2015, according to USPS data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Hunting Park ranks among the top five Philly neighborhoods for most grievances about mail delivery. The full list runs much longer.

Another thing that has steadily increased over the past five years: Philly’s population. There are about 20,000 more people living in the city now than in 2015, according to an Inquirer analysis.

Whether that’s a major factor in the surge of complaints is unclear. The federal data provided by USPS did not break down mail complaints by incident or nature. They may include a wide range of customer grievances, from mail arriving late to misdeliveries to damaged parcels.

Ray V. Daiutolo, the USPS spokesperson for the Philadelphia region, noted that the postal service makes 360 million deliveries a year in the city and surrounding suburbs. According to Billy Penn’s analysis, fewer than 0.5% of total deliveries in the region resulted in a complaint.

‘Traffic tie ups and loose dogs’ 

Local mail carriers deliver to 1.2 million addresses in the region, seven days a week — and the city poses some challenges that the suburbs do not, Daiutolo said.

The Philly zip code that encompasses the USPS Philadelphia Processing and Distribution Center saw the highest volume of complaints attached by far — more than 20,000 per year.

Those problems appear to have subsided somewhat. The zip code attached to the center saw a 30% reduction in complaints between 2015 and 2018. But other neighborhoods are not so lucky.

Zip codes in Southwest Philly, University City and near Temple University made up the lion’s share of complaints to USPS in recent years. That’s likely attributable to the sizeable numbers of transients (travelers and students) using the postal service in those areas. The PHL Airport zip code in Southwest had more than 20,000 complaints alone last year, accounting for more than a third of the city’s mail-related problems.

Those zips are followed by nearly a dozen residential neighborhoods — from Germantown to Frankford to Point Breeze — that each logged between 1,000 and 2,000 complaints annually for delivery-related disruption issues.

“Providing consistent and reliable service to a major city area certainly has its challenges — traffic tie ups and loose dogs for example, but our carriers take great pride in delivering for our customers,” Daiutolo wrote in an emailed statement.

Few suburban counties saw such a stark increase in USPS problems.

Small cities like Delco’s Chester and suburban boroughs like Montco’s Lansdale clocked 400 complaints or more each year, but showed no real statistical change in complaint volume between 2015 and 2018.

Some of Philly’s mail woes may be the city’s fault. A 2016 audit that found chronic mismanagement in the mail distribution center beneath City Hall, leading to long delays in delivery. That facility is managed by the city’s Department of Revenue, not by the federal postal service.

“We estimate that during our onsite visits as many as 10,000 pieces of mail were sitting in baskets, not being processed,” then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz said at the time.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

USPS: We’re not talking about it

Mail theft is a particular concern for many residents in the city.

For some neighborhoods, it’s packages swiped from the stoop and letters pilched from the mailbox. In East Falls this summer, residents raised the alarm of missing letters — many including four-figure checks — that were dropped in three different local USPS postal boxes in the neighborhood. Residents suspected it was a thief breaking into the collection boxes.

Federal authorities investigate dozens of postal crimes in Philly each year. The USPS launched an investigation into rash of dropbox thefts in Society Hill in April.

The Office of the Inspector General for USPS investigated 120 cases of mail theft in Philadelphia county zip codes over the last decade, according to agency data. The Philadelphia Police Department’s data on incidents of mail theft was not readily available.

Few seem to want to talk about the issue of mail theft — or delivery issues in general.

USPS spokesperson Daiutolo declined to answer further questions about delivery problems in certain Philly neighborhoods where complaints are on the steady rise. Keystone Branch 157, the Philly-area union for the National Association of Letter Carriers, did not return a request for comment.

The USPS encourages customers to place their concerns at www.usps.gov. You can also call 1-800-ASK-USPS, or hitting them up on Twitter @USPShelp.

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