The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A D.C. therapist waits (and waits) on mail containing at least $45,000

Cynthia Killough describes a frustrating search for answers from the U.S. Postal Service

A pedestrian passes the 14th Street Post Office in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 2020. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

As a child, Cynthia Killough would grab an extra Popsicle for her mail carrier and head outside to greet him. She knew exactly when to expect him.

Now, as an adult who works in D.C., Killough has grown used to opening her office mailbox and finding nothing for weeks.

Since May, she has received only three pieces of mail.

For many people, that might not be concerning. But Killough works as a psychologist in Dupont Circle and relies on her mail to get paid. Insurance companies and clients often mail her checks, and by her count, more than $45,000 has not reached her.

“There is this huge batch of mail for me that is just sitting somewhere,” she told me on a recent morning.

Or maybe it isn’t sitting somewhere. Maybe it’s been destroyed. Maybe it’s been sent on a slow journey back to senders. The truth is, Killough doesn’t know what happened to her mail, despite spending this summer in a series of exchanges with U.S. Postal Service officials, trying to get answers.

“It’s been so hard to figure out what’s happening,” she said. “No one knows where my mail is.”

Killough now keeps a growing word document titled “USPS SAGA” that contains detailed notes of her interactions with U.S. Postal Service employees. It shows her making repeated phone calls, getting advice from her former mail carrier, visiting two local post offices, once during a lightning storm, and exchanging emails with officials.

Mostly, though, it shows someone losing faith in the U.S. Postal Service. Killough relies on technology for many parts of her business and is now moving to a more complete electronic billing system. Sure, she could have done that sooner, but it’s not an easy process. It requires changing billing software that allows her to handle complicated insurance breakdowns, paying additional fees and asking clients to adjust their practices. She also didn’t think she had to.

In her notes, she addresses why she didn’t grow alarmed sooner by her empty mailbox. She explains that the pandemic slowed mail delivery and writes, “Plus, for the first 54 years of my life I TRUSTED the USPS.”

“I don’t think the point is, ‘Why don’t you do everything electronically?’” she told me. “I think the point is that this huge part of the reliable American infrastructure is not reliable anymore. That’s huge, and especially the older you are, I think that’s a blow to your faith in this infrastructure.”

Killough agreed to share her story because she wants to find out what happened to her missing mail. She also recognizes that her situation is not isolated. “What if you’re 80 and it was your social security check?” she said.

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Mail delivery issues in D.C. are not a new source of grumbling. On Tuesday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) met with Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale to talk about mail theft in the city. And in April, the congresswoman sent a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy addressing reports of undelivered and delayed mail throughout the city.

“My constituent services office has approximately 130 cases of mail problems open with USPS, at least a quarter of which have been open for almost a year or longer,” the letter read.

Her letter continued: “In response to one of my recent letters to USPS regarding mail issues in D.C., USPS indicated that delays in delivery were due to employee leave during the pandemic, along with problems of retention of the local supplemental workforce. We are no longer in the same situation with the pandemic that we were at that time, so it is not clear why delivery issues persist.”

In May, Norton’s office said 75 percent of those cases had been closed and shared a letter she had received from a USPS official.

“There are a variety of reasons for a delay in the delivery of a mailpiece or package, from transportation problems in our system to unscheduled employee absences,” it read. “In this instance, local postal officials advised that there are no systemic delays in Washington similar to those we experienced earlier this year during the surge in Omicron-related employee absences.”

Killough said she occupied the same office suite from 2002 to 2006 and never experienced any problem receiving mail. She then moved back into that office in September 2021, and the mail delivery seemed fine until May.

In June, she started growing concerned at her lack of mail and began speaking to her office mates to see if anyone else was experiencing issues. Then in July, she entered an odyssey of making phone calls, waiting on hold, sending emails and being offered different advice by postal workers. She said one suggested she call a facility at about 4 a.m. to get someone on the phone.

Her husband, she said, jokingly started calling her Ahab, a reference to Captain Ahab, who grows obsessed with finding the white whale Moby Dick in the Herman Melville novel. “It has taken on this absurd quest feeling,” she said.

Killough said she doesn’t blame the carrier. She knows she is just trying to do her job. Whatever is happening, she said, involves the broader system. Just as frustrating as not getting her mail has been not getting clear answers about it.

“If the point of the slow down and administrative stuff is to create such bad faith in the mail that people stop using it, it seems to be working,” she said.

Emails from USPS that Killough shared with me show that on July 17, she was told: “The letter carrier for your route was made aware of the mail delivery issue. All mail for your address will be monitored closely to ensure your mail is being delivered timely.”

Then after getting one piece of mail and calling again to get information, she received an email on Aug. 10 saying: “Our investigations led us to confer with the carrier and she has confirmed that the mail sent to your office is not properly addressed. The address should include the suite number such as Ste 500 N or Ste 500 S etc. as there are a few Suite 500 in the complex. Regrettably, the items that were insufficiently addressed, were returned to sender.”

Killough said she knows of only one piece of mail that was received by a sender. She also questions whether the issue was really a missing identifier for the suite number since it was never previously a problem and her mailbox in the lobby shows her name. Her landlord also sent her an email saying that extra identifier was not needed.

On Wednesday, after being asked about Killough’s case, USPS spokesperson Paul Smith said in an email that the proper address should contain that extra identifier after the suite number and that as of Aug. 12, a notice was placed on Killough’s box alerting the carrier to leave her mail there. “We sincerely apologize for the experience,” he wrote.

Killough said before the mail disruption occurred, her family had been planning to renovate their home, and in preparation of going through the refinancing process, she and her husband had been working to make sure their credit scores were high. She said the missing checks caused her to rely more on credit and her credit score to drop, which could end up costing her family thousands in interest over the life of the loan.

The experience has also cost her time. She said she had to cancel an appointment with a client to wait on hold with USPS. She also had to change her address to add that extra suite identifier — despite feeling skeptical it will help — on her insurance and professional licenses in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

And after all of that, she still doesn’t know where her mail ended up. She also doesn’t know if she will open her mailbox in the coming weeks and find anything in it.