“If asked, they’re to be referred to as ‘Delivery Partners’ or ‘Distributors,’” said a second carrier. “It’s ridiculous.”
The directive, passed down Monday morning from U.S. Postal Service management, comes three weeks after mail carriers in the northern Minnesota town staged a symbolic strike outside the post office, protesting the heavy workloads and long hours caused by the sudden arrival of thousands of Amazon packages.
On Tuesday, staffers from the offices of Democratic Minnesota senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar hosted a “listening session” with Bemidji residents to “discuss ongoing postal issues related to package and mail delivery,” according to an invitation distributed by Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince.
“We need a very clear commitment that we’re not going to be prioritizing Amazon packages over regular mail,” Klobuchar told The Washington Post after Tuesday’s meeting. She also said her office is looking into improving postal staffing and pay for rural carriers, and has repeatedly requested a meeting with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
In addition to being banned from saying “Amazon,” postal workers have also been told their jobs could be at risk if they speak publicly about post office issues. Staffers were told they could attend Tuesday’s meeting only on their 30-minute lunch break if they changed out of uniform, mail carriers said. One mail carrier said he’d been warned there could be “consequences” for those who showed up.
Postal customers in Bemidji have been complaining about late and missing mail since the beginning of November, when the contract for delivering Amazon packages in town switched from UPS to the post office. Mail carriers told The Post last month that they were instructed to deliver packages before the mail, leaving residents waiting for tax rebates, credit card statements, medical documents and checks.
Many of those residents complained to elected officials, including Smith, who wrote a letter to the postmaster general inquiring about reports that “Amazon is interfering with timely deliveries and stretching the agency’s already-overburdened workers too thin.”
“We routinely work with the US Postal Service to deliver for customers and we apologize for any delays experienced in and around Bemidji,” Amazon spokesperson Sam Stephenson said in a statement. “We work closely with USPS to refine volume forecasts so they can operate smoothly, and we’ll continue to do so as we work through the holiday season.”
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, and the newspaper’s interim CEO, Patty Stonesifer, sits on Amazon’s board.)
As the holiday shopping season gets underway, the packages in Bemidji continue to pile up — at one point they were stacked so high someone called the fire marshal. Mail carriers say they’ve been mandated to work on Sundays, delivering mail seven days a week on lonely rural routes that can now take up to 12 hours to complete.
“People need to understand how just how bad it’s gotten,” said Eric Cerroni, whose wife is a mail carrier in Bemidji.
Mail carriers asked Cerroni to present written testimony on behalf of postal workers at the Tuesday meeting because they are “too busy with work and probably scared of repercussions.”
Kyle Sorbe, a spokesperson for Smith’s office, said in an email that “if these reports are true, they’re extremely concerning and Senator Smith will be seeking a clarification from the Postal Service.”
Post office spokesperson David Partenheimer said the meeting was “not a USPS-sponsored event and we don’t plan to attend,” as staff members “are focused on our peak-season operations now.”
“Regarding questions about Amazon or other companies we work with,” he continued, “the Postal Service does not discuss specifics of our working relationships.”
Tuesday’s meeting in Bemidji lasted over an hour. Fifty people attended in person, and more than 180 watched a live stream on the website of local newspaper the Bemidji Pioneer.
Multiple postal workers who recently quit or retired due to the ongoing issues attended, including one who identified herself only as Shelly, and received a spontaneous round of applause when she began to speak.
“I worked at the post office for 30 years,” she said. “Never in my life have I been treated so poorly. I go home at night crying.”
“I didn’t want to retire yet,” she said. “But I was forced to retire.”
Residents expressed their problems with delayed mail, including missing medications and late bills resulting in fees. They also shared concerns about working conditions for postal workers, including low pay, long hours and safety risks for mail carriers working late at night.
At the meeting, congressional staffers said multiple letters from their respective offices had finally received a response on Monday. In that response, shared with The Post, DeJoy acknowledged that the volume of Amazon packages at the Bemidji Post Office has increased. “Because packages in general take up considerably more physical space than letter mail or flats, a period of high package volume (such as peak season) can lead to Post Office loading docks becoming overwhelmed,” the letter says. “Thus, a high package volume always has the potential to interfere with the flow of letter mail, regardless of where those packages originated.” The post office is working to integrate the mail and packages, the letter said.
DeJoy contested the assertion that rural carriers are underpaid, but conceded that because “package volume grew in Bemidji … some rural carriers are now working longer hours than they were previously.”
He also said that district-level data show that most of the mail in Bemidji is being delivered on time. But Smith’s office disputed that claim, saying the post office has limited ability to track paper mail.
On Monday, the Minnesota senators introduced a bill called the Postal Delivery Accountability Act, which would require the post office to improve tracking and reporting of delayed and undelivered mail nationally.
“As an essential public service, USPS owes its customers transparency,” a brief on the proposed legislation says. “This is a step toward that goal.”
The post office has held a contract to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays since 2013. The agency, which has lost $6.5 billion in the past year, has said that it’s crucial to increase package volume by cutting deals with Amazon and other retailers.
A previous version of this article misidentified Kyle Sorbe, a spokesperson for Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), as Kyle Smith. The article has been corrected.