If you've noticed you're getting your mail later in the day, it's not a sign that the United States Postal Service is slacking off, but just the opposite: that it's actually getting even more efficient.
Post offices in communities across the nation have been directed to deal with declining mail volume - due to the economic downturn combined with the general rise of e-mail and electronic billing - by reassessing and altering their routes, typically giving letter carriers an expanded range to cover. Residents in several suburban communities recently received cards from their local post office saying delivery times might change as a result.
"It is an ongoing process," said Tim Ratliff, a USPS spokesman in Bloomingdale, adding that mail volume declined by a record 9.5 billion items last year.
"Being that mail volume, the way we record it, is continually dropping, and everyone knows that, we had to take the 96 routes here in Des Plaines and Rosemont and make 88," said the Des Plaines Post Office's Officer-in-Charge James Wizniak. "We evaluate these routes. We see where we can make cuts."
The actual change in delivery, though, figures to be minimal for the average resident, he said. "They might see a difference in time of day," Wizniak added. "We're still delivering six days a week. That has not changed. If you were at the first part of a route previous to this, when things are shuffled around you might be at the end of a route."
Wizniak said they've received a few complaints, but "there's nothing we can guarantee as far as time of day."
"Obviously, we are sensitive to our customers," Ratliff added. "At the same time, we want to make the best uses of our resources."
Des Plaines' letter volume is down 30 percent from a year ago, according to Wizniak. So it makes sense letter carriers should be able to handle more stops. When holiday catalogs increase volume toward the end of the year, carriers will just have to deal with it as usual, although there are ameliorating factors.
"When it goes back up around the holidays, usually the bulk-rate mail is less, so it evens out," Wizniak said.
It doesn't mean the USPS will be imposing layoffs, but that it will be able to trim staffing over the long haul. "People are reassigned, and we do this to prevent layoffs," Wizniak said. "Attrition, resignations, retirements, things like that will cover the people who are displaced."
The USPS, which lost $2.8 billion last year, announced last month that it will raise the price of a first-class stamp by 2 cents to 44 cents on May 11. In January, Postmaster General John E. Potter asked Congress to drop a requirement that deliveries be six days a week, but no decision has been made.
Yet, the Postal Service has largely turned its reputation around in recent years with improved service and delivery. In fact, in arguing for nationalized health care on his HBO show "Real Time" last week, caustic comedian Bill Maher addressed critics of the plan by saying he wished we had a government-run health-care agency as efficient as the post office.