U.S. Postal Service employees and supervisors have routinely falsified data on package deliveries, likely so they are not penalized for tardiness, according to postal workers and internal data obtained by The Washington Post. And the practice appears to have intensified as Americans ordered more items online during the coronavirus pandemic.
A Washington Post examination of Postal Service data and interviews with nearly a dozen current and former employees showed that workers scanned millions of packages with incorrect delivery-designation codes — claiming that a customer’s driveway was blocked or that the recipient was not home, for example, when in fact the package never left the post office.
The problematic scans are among several practices that have drawn attention recently, as the Postal Service grapples with cost-cutting measures introduced by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and prepares for an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots for the November election. DeJoy’s policies, some of which have been halted by federal judges, have been cited by independent experts and Democrats in Congress as causing widespread delays in first-class deliveries.
The Post reported in August that customers nationwide were being erroneously notified that their packages had been held at the post office at their own request. Newly obtained data, and interviews with two former postal executives and nine current postal workers, shows that the false codes are far more varied and extensive, and suggest that they are meant to boost the agency’s performance metrics.
Postal workers said in interviews that they have been pressured by their bosses to perform false scans increasingly over the past six months so that late packages appear to have been delivered — or are delayed because of issues at the delivery address — to ensure they don’t count against the agency’s delivery statistics.
“They don’t care as long as there’s a scan on it, because it doesn’t count as a failure. But it is a failure,” said one mail carrier in Massachusetts who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. “If I had a dollar, I would bet you a dollar that it’s not just in my office that that scan doesn’t get recorded when Congress says, ‘I want to see your delivery metrics.’ ”
Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said in a statement that the agency maintains “end to end visibility” of its packages as they are accepted, processed and delivered, and that it takes “improper package processing very seriously.”
“We are committed to making sure all packages are properly delivered for our customers,” Partenheimer wrote. “We are proud of the work our employees play in processing, transporting, and delivering mail and packages for the American public during these challenging times. We provide a vital public service that is a part of this nation’s critical infrastructure.”
The Postal Service has struggled to provide reliable delivery as package volumes are skyrocketing and the amount of paper mail is falling, making package delivery ever more crucial to the agency’s survival. The increase in packages has boosted revenue but created logistical headaches for an agency designed to move predominantly paper, not boxes. Meanwhile, Amazon, FedEx and UPS are investing heavily to expand their own distribution networks in hopes of one day bypassing the Postal Service, which they use for “last-mile” delivery. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Amid the pressure, a postal facility manager in Pennsylvania said, “Some of these upper-level managers are ruthless. … These postmasters are under pressure to meet their objectives, and sometimes those objectives are unrealistic.”
A long-standing problem
Inspectors general have chastised the Postal Service for false package scans for years, but internal data obtained by The Post suggests the problem has worsened.
In 2017, one inspector general pointed out that 1 percent of all packages were being scanned after 7 p.m., an indicator that they were scanned to “stop the clock,” as the agency calls it, rather than being labeled correctly. By September of this year, the data obtained by The Post shows that number climbing: More than 7 percent of packages were scanned after 5 p.m., when almost all deliveries are already completed for the day. Packages are considered “failed” if they are not delivered by 8 p.m.
In postal facilities across the country, workers sort and track the movement of packages with a handheld scanning device. The screen lists mail that a carrier is responsible for delivering that day. As they work their routes, they scan the bar codes of the mail pieces they deliver, and the list on the scanner gets shorter.
Packages that remain in facilities or are returned by letter carriers are supposed to go unscanned until they are delivered. If they miss on-time delivery windows, customers can demand a refund. Lateness also hurts a facility’s performance metrics, which are linked to compensation increases.
To avoid that, the workers and former executives told The Post, supervisors sometimes direct employees to scan packages while they are sitting inside the post office at the end of the day. Sometimes supervisors scan the packages themselves to artificially improve performance rates, the employees said. Inspector general reports say the most common false scan is simply to mark a package as “delivered” while it is in the post office, followed by scans that driveways were blocked, mailboxes were full or businesses were closed, among others.
“Human nature is, the systems break down to what’s easiest for the person working, not what the policy is. I think there’s a natural degradation toward that,” said one former executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are still involved in the mailing industry.
The Post traced 15 packages from Postal Service customers who received incorrect notifications in August and September, including messages that their package was held at their request and that their driveways were blocked. Based on the GPS coordinates of the scans and other information provided by local postal offices, seven of the packages were in the post office or still en route to the post office when they were scanned.
Another five were scanned at locations that were neither the destination nor the post office — probably because the package accidentally went on the wrong mail truck, postal workers said. Instead of telling the customers that their mail was on the wrong route and would arrive the next day, the Postal Service said the packages were held at the customer’s request or that their houses could not be accessed. Local post offices could not provide GPS information for the other three packages that were incorrectly scanned.
One wrongly scanned package belonged to Joanna Boyd, 35, of Washington, D.C. She is pregnant and avoids going out as much as possible because of the novel coronavirus.
“If a package failed to be delivered, usually that means they knocked and no one was there. But we’re working from home. We’re home all the time,” she said about receiving a message that her package was being held at the post office. “That they had failed to deliver it seemed impossible.”
The coordinates from Boyd’s package showed it was still in a processing facility on the evening she was notified it was being held at her post office. Two days later, the package arrived at her door.
“People might think it’s innocent, but for the people calling up and saying, ‘Where’s my package?’ it matters,” said one Florida manager. “It sounds fishy, and it is. There’s no other reason for it. It’s falsification of scanning.”
Double scans, late scans
From Sept. 1 to Sept. 16, 5.5 million of the 617.5 million items delivered, or 0.89 percent, had been scanned at least twice — indicating that the first scan may have been false and used simply to meet a deadline, according to internal Postal Service data obtained by The Post. The Northeast, Southern and Pacific sectors had the highest multiple scans, affecting about 1 percent of all packages in each region.
During the same period, 7.85 percent of all scans occurred after 5 p.m., according to another internal agency data set, including 13.2 percent of scans in the Southern area, 9.83 percent in the Capital Metro area and 7.8 percent in the Northeast.
In 2017, when the inspector general found that the false scans were a problem in every region of the country, senior leadership at the Postal Service objected to the report, writing back, “Overall, we question the report’s methodology and the fact that it does not consider plausible and legitimate explanations” for late-night scans conducted inside the post office.
In February, Deputy Assistant Inspector General Janet M. Sorensen wrote a letter to Kevin McAdams, then the Postal Service’s vice president for delivery and retail operations, saying that concerns about improper scanning still “require immediate attention and remediation.”
She said inspectors tracked 1,126 parcels at 25 post offices in large and small towns in 2019 and found that 191 were marked “delivered” before reaching their destinations. Six others were marked “no access” at a time and place when the mail carrier wasn’t attempting to access the address. In the first 11 months of 2019, Sorensen wrote, 16.5 million of the Postal Service’s 3 billion scans were improperly conducted inside post offices.
Though managers said in response that they hoped to start new training on proper scanning by the end of October, the problem seems to have continued — and worsened in some regions.
For example, an integrity report obtained by The Post from the Suncoast District, a broad region spanning Central Florida and some of South Florida, listed 12 pages of suspicious scans on Sept. 4 alone. The report said 2.7 percent of all packages processed that day — more than 19,000 — were scanned after 5 p.m.
When the report looked more closely at specific packages, it found a host of irregularities, including a carrier in Tampa who scanned 21 packages within a few seconds at 6:14 p.m., and a supervisor in Maitland who scanned eight packages within seconds, just 20 minutes before the 8 p.m. deadline.
On Sept. 8, after Labor Day weekend, 12.9 percent of all packages were scanned after 5 p.m., the report said. It flagged 18 pages of suspicious scans, including a Vero Beach clerk who scanned 12 packages between 7:12 and 7:14 p.m., and an Orlando clerk who scanned 20 packages, all at 6:59 p.m.
The mail carrier in Massachusetts, who has been with the Postal Service for more than 30 years, said that after DeJoy’s policies were instituted, his post office fell behind on sorting like never before. False scans skyrocketed. Standards that the carrier has long admired started falling apart, he said.
“Less than a year ago, there were banners hanging in the office. ‘Every piece, every day.’ ‘The customer depends on you.’ Stuff like that,” he said.
This year, the banners came down.