Edith Arrowood has been waiting for her college diploma to arrive in the mail since August. To date, it’s been mailed to her four separate times; none have arrived.
Amy Kaufman waited three weeks for baby formula that was delivered to Truckee’s Deerfield post office to actually appear in the parcel locker.
Dan Saville, a former Truckee postmaster, told Moonshine he heard from a reliable source that at one point during October, the material from one to two town mail routes was being left undelivered in the post office each day.
Receiving mail in a rural mountain town comes with challenges on any given day, and it has for a long time: Inclement weather, low wages, and a lack of big box stores (meaning more items get shipped in) all contribute to the reality. Some mail isn’t delivered because the recipients don’t complete paperwork: There’s a requirement for anyone moving to the area to formally submit a rural delivery signup card to the post office before they can start receiving mail, and people may not realize they need to submit the form. The list goes on.
“I fully comprehend the way that mail works in Tahoe … Mail’s frustrating in Tahoe, and infuriating,” said Arrowood, who lives currently in Donner Lake, and lived Prosser before that, and prior to that, Incline Village (where she says the post office is even worse than Truckee). “[Mail in Tahoe has never been] my favorite, but it wasn’t horrible the way it is now.”
The mail pieces pouring into Truckee and trickling out from its post offices are causing considerable angst among town residents, who say packages are being returned to sender without their knowledge or a chance to pick up, or mail is stuck in a never-ending spin cycle of the post system, or that there are too few post office staffers to answer any questions at all. Behind the scenes, there are days when the back room of the post office are wall-to-wall filled with bins of boxes and packages piled high, towering over the staff who work there.
The pain point, the reason mail delivery has allegedly gone from bad to worse, has to do with a couple things, say former employees: a national condensing of service districts, Covid-19, the local housing crisis, and postmasters who can’t seem to stick.
On Aug. 15, Congressman Tom McClintock’s office submitted a formal congressional inquiry “to the USPS Congressional Liaison regarding inconsistent delivery, an understaffed office, and frequent office closures in Truckee,” Daniella Cassano, deputy communications director for McClintock shared with Moonshine. In reaction, on Aug. 26, McClintock’s office was informed that the postal agency and current Truckee postmaster Darrin Freeman were aware of these concerns, and that three days prior, seven carriers were sent on loan to Truckee.
Proposed solutions, from residents and former staff alike, include raising wages and improving communication with the public; whatever it is, people agree that something needs to change.
Media requests of current postal staff were referred to the corporate Sacramento office. Perspectives on that level say USPS business is good, but with caveats. Kristina Uppal, a strategic communications specialist with the service, informed the Ink in an email that, per the latest fiscal year report, “average delivery time to deliver a letter or package across the entire postal network was 2.5 days.” That’s a country-wide statistic. She didn’t have an average delivery time for the Truckee area, but shared that all mail “received at the Truckee Post Office is processed daily and all outgoing mail is collected and dispatched daily and processed within our network.”
Uppal added that in town, the postal service is “currently experiencing low employee availability in the local area. In response, we are continuing to utilize all available resources, including bringing in carriers and clerks from outside the area to move and process the mail and meet our commitments.” (Emphasis is Uppal’s.)
Meanwhile, post stations on the North Shore, like at Tahoe Vista, Tahoe City, and others, do not have carrier routes, meaning fewer positions are needed, and dealing with winter road conditions and traffic are less of an issue. Truckee, Incline Village, and South Lake Tahoe have carrier routes to fill.
“Yes, they are running on all cylinders, and they don’t have enough people, but to just keep going like this is not sustainable for the people who work there, who are going to burn out from the craziness,” Kaufman said.
Low availability, low pay, high stress
Truckee’s postmaster position is not known for its longevity.
Saville, who accepted the mantle in December 2019, came from Portland, Oregon with years of experience, rising from a rural mail carrier to city carrier and into management. Truckee was his first postmaster gig.
Despite wanting to retire as Truckee’s postmaster, a position he says was “an absolute honor,” Saville knew the slot was known to be a revolving door: “Out of the last five [postmasters], three of them walked out, one left in an ambulance, and one actually demoted and went back up to Oregon,” he said.
A considerable stressor of the job includes hiring, even when there’s not a pandemic going on. Saville said much of the hiring pool for postal work comes out of Reno, and because it’s such a taxing job — what with the “spinning and grinning” of trying to find addresses or delivering mail in right-hand driving vehicles that are 30 to 40 years old and don’t have four-wheel drive — people don’t tend to stick around.
“You roll all that in together and you get these people that start working for the post office and they start out with a bad taste in their mouth from day one,” Saville said.
Additionally, there’s the low pay. So says a former employee at the Truckee post office, who worked there for about five years. Remaining anonymous due to job security, this person says USPS needs to be “hiring more people and paying them more. Because the gas station pays $2 more than we pay, and I think McDonald’s is up to $23 or something like that, and then the hospital pays almost $30, so no one wants to work for what we pay. But [USPS is] like, ‘Great benefits!’ I was like, ‘Oh yes, let me try to tell my landlord I’ll pay him in benefits and see how that works out.’”
Across the U.S., the most-needed postal positions in processing and delivery have a pay range from $18.92 to $21.19 an hour, regardless of cost of living. Per a downtown Truckee USPS job fair on Oct. 25, a rural carrier starts at $19.50 per hour and a mail processing clerk at $19.62.
This staffer said the pandemic threw a wrench into postal operations: “Once Covid hit, all the people who’d been there for like 30 freaking years, they all went out on medical leave and then they all retired and then people transferred out and no one wanted to get hired in there anymore.”
To date, the downtown post office has one local clerk and seven local carriers. To cover additional needs, clerks and carriers come up for stints from Sacramento and Stockton and stay for extended periods of time at the SpringHill Suites in Truckee. On top of regular pay, they get a free hotel stay and per diem money.
“It’s basically putting bandages on [the problem],” the anonymous staffer said.
The mail service frustrations aren’t solely due to local factors. U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced in early 2021 that the 67 postal service districts would be consolidated into 50. That included dismantling the Nevada-Sierra District, of which Truckee and Tahoe post offices were a part. Since those areas are now part of the California 1 district, senior leadership for them is based in Sacramento.
“They really kind of screwed Truckee’s post office because they changed all of our senior leadership here in Truckee to Sacramento,” Saville explained. “… But when they did that, they kept our mail coming out of the Reno plant, so if I had issues with getting my mail from the plant, my line of communication wasn’t there anymore. I had to go through a whole new set of leadership. And the leadership gave no love to Truckee.” On this last point, he said no one at the Sacramento office seemed to be on the same page, and he wasn’t getting the kind of help he got with the Nevada-Sierra District.
According to Saville, he was forced to resign on Dec. 27, 2021. Three months earlier, on the evening of Sept. 7, Saville had fallen asleep at about 10:20 p.m., before he got the all-clear from four mail carriers who were still out delivering mail. Normally after he received that daily call, he’d notify his supervisor that everyone had wrapped up for the day.
“I go into work the next morning and I find out that these four adult men made the decision to deliver mail till nine o’clock, eight o’clock in the morning,” Saville explained. “So, they essentially stayed out all night long … and then my boss came up and all these people came up and they actually walked me out of work, and they started this huge investigation.”
Saville said he was ultimately accused of sharing his USPS password with people, and he was questioned about time spent with one of his subordinates who had breast cancer — time that he says constituted having a beer in her front yard with both of their significant others present, but what higher-ups considered “fraternization.” Saville explained that his choices were either resign and never work for the post office again or keep fighting and be marked as never able to work for the federal government again.
Saville believes Darrin Freeman, current Truckee postmaster and one of the four carriers who worked for 24 hours straight, was promoted too quickly: “I was a supervisor for many years,” he said. “I did route counts. I came from the Portland district; I came from big stations. I had so much training behind me when I came to Truckee, and it still wasn’t enough. I cannot imagine what Darrin’s going through right now.”
Freeman declined to speak with Moonshine Ink.
Rain or shine or …
Kaufman, a Tahoe Donner homeowner since 2018 who shifted to living in Truckee full-time in 2020, has spent more than two years on the homeowner association’s waitlist for a mailbox. Tahoe Donner has four clusters of P.O. boxes around the neighborhood (2,630 boxes total, for about 6,500 properties). Kaufman and others have speculated that because the HOA is a second-home location to a majority of its residents, boxes for every single property weren’t previously necessary.
“What’s happened with Tahoe Donner is a lot of people now live here full time,” Kaufman said. “So suddenly where there wasn’t really an issue because people got a P.O. box, or they didn’t because they would get mail delivered to their home address … The pandemic has changed people’s living location. And it’s put pressure on Tahoe Donner to figure out where to put more boxes and how many more they need.”
Residents are entitled to a free P.O. box in the Tahoe Donner neighborhood. Because Tahoe Donner doesn’t have enough boxes for its residents, those on the waiting list must pay to rent a box at the post office to receive mail.
“Some people up here have free postal service and some of us don’t, and we’re all paying the same HOA fee,” Kaufman said. “So that seems a little unfair.”
Tahoe Donner mailboxes are currently part of the association’s capital improvement plan, which is proposed to begin in 2024. No formal decision has been made on moving forward by the board of directors, but the project would expand the number of available mailboxes to the projected tune of $812,794. Tahoe Donner General Manager David Mickaelian said there’s not yet a specific box amount to be installed, and staff “will need to meet with the postmaster to determine requirements.”
Mail frustrations are not limited to Truckee’s largest neighborhood. Arrowood over in Donner Lake has faced trials at the USPS Deerfield location, also known as the Donner Station, which is a P.O. box-only station. The way she was initially told by staff to address her packages, which included Deerfield’s actual address and the P.O. box number, turned out to be incorrect. (Only the box number is needed, she was recently told, and USPS’s Uppal confirmed.) This caused multiple packages to be sent back without her being given a reason why.
Another lack of communication, Arrowood said, was utilization of the correct zip code for Deerfield. Despite being recognized as part of the 96161 zip code, Uppal wrote, “All of Donner Station, including the P.O. boxes, have the zip code of 96162.” This is a common enough mistake for Deerfield mail that Arrowood told Moonshine a sign is posted on the front door of the station that says to use 96162 as a zip code.
Uppal says that the rumors that Deerfield is closing are incorrect.
Across social media, other community members complain that sometimes no stamps are available. They worry about mail-in ballots making it to elections offices. They are alarmed to receive notifications of package delivery to the post office, but then when attempting to pick it up, discover the package cannot be found.
There are ways to bypass USPS mail services, but they often cost more money.
Kaufman, for example, says she’s shifted her mailbox from the Deerfield station to Truckee Laundry, just across the street. In Incline Village, Arrowood used Postal Express and said she had a great experience.
Carrie Ridgel and her husband own the Office BOSS locations in Truckee and Reno, which offer private mailbox rentals and whose mail is picked up directly by a Reno-based contracted trucking business as opposed to a post office carrier. She commented on the on and off struggles of local post offices over the past 13 years, including high postmaster turnover and city-trained mail carriers running rural mountain routes, sometimes “delivering until nearly midnight because they don’t know the area.”
The Office BOSS staff works to alleviate as much work from the Truckee post office as possible, Ridgel explained in an email to Moonshine: “We willingly adjust our schedule to accommodate their ability to sort the mail. We know they are struggling when we are told to come back in three to four hours to pick up mail or when they hand us a bucket of six pieces of mail for our 600 mailbox customers.”
Ridgel added that in the past month, The Office BOSS has been selling more stamps and renting more private mailboxes than usual. “Our new customers [are] stating that the primary reason is the post office has declared a package undeliverable and then returned that package to the sender,” she wrote. As of publication, there are private mailboxes available for rent at The Office BOSS.
Keeping up the pressure
Congressman McClintock’s office continues to stay engaged with the town’s postal situation. “Our office remains committed to advocating for constituents affected by inconsistent USPS service in Truckee,” Cassano, with the congressman’s office, told Moonshine Ink. “Constituents experiencing issues with USPS in Truckee are encouraged to reach out to the congressman’s office in Roseville.”
Aside from the seemingly obvious solutions of better pay to hire local employees, Kaufman believes improved communication with Truckee’s community will go a long way in addressing postal frustrations on both sides of the counter.
She suggested the postmaster and his supervisors streamlining USPS availability around what’s realistic until better solutions are decided upon.
“Explain what they need from us and explain what they’re going to do to solve it in the interim,” Kaufman said, “Deerfield’s only going to be open from noon to four [or] packages are going to be delivered once a week or whatever it is. Just say this is what we need to do right now. Rather than someone like me having to go to the P.O. every other day … You set expectations, you explain what the problem is, and explain what the longer-term fix is, but here’s what we need to do in the interim … This craziness, it’s not fair to the people who work there and it’s not fair to the public that they serve.”