By Alexandra Peers, CNN Business
The labor shortage has reached peak stupid: One post office’s workers couldn’t sell stamps.
For the past two weeks, at the Park West station of the US Postal Service in Manhattan, at regular intervals employees have announced to people waiting in line that the facility could not sell stamps.
On the Upper West Side, where within a one-block radius of the station you can buy a $339 bottle of Champagne, a Baby Yoda costume for a dog and a $9 “Young leaves in a bowl Salad,” this scarcity was not well-received.
What’s going on? It turns out that, amid staffing shortages, only two people in all of New York had a key to the station vault where the stamps are stored, and both were MIA since mid-August.
“There was an unexpected retirement and another employee was on leave” at the branch, notes Xavier C. Hernandez, US Postal Service strategic communications officer.
Plus, its “an industry-type safe,” he added. Government policy “requires locksmiths to submit request-for-proposals” before being hired to break in.
So when one man in a black polo shirt walked into the station Wednesday seeking “Picture, commemorative stamps…” the colorful, collectible kind of wildlife or art images that most people prefer for personal correspondence, the scene was something out of “Seinfeld.”
He asked, “I can’t buy stamps at the post office?” incredulously. He asked again (while declining CNNs request for an interview by waving frantic jazz hands.)
“Not at this time,” came the answer.
“When will I be able to buy stamps at the post office?” he asked, seeking a recently issued sheet of cartoon “Elephants Forever” stamps issued just last month, or “the tigers.”
“I cannot tell you that at this moment,” the post office worker replied, gesturing tiredly at a handwritten sign noting the facility didn’t have stamps, or money orders.
The line of about seven people waiting rustled in confusion.
“We’re short-staffed,” a red-haired woman described by other employees as the supervisor said to CNN.
For several years, the US Postal Service has been in crisis, losing money, longtime revenue sources and staff. It had a notoriously bad relationship with Donald Trump, who famously called it “a joke.”
Now, “hiring is a priority,” explains Wanda Diaz, who is being sworn in as Manhattan’s new postmaster Friday. “We are currently recruiting 28,000 new employees” in New York alone, she said in an email regarding her appointment, which also addressed the missing stamps.
In 2021, the USPS had 655,000 workers, about 200,000 of whom are nearing retirement, and there’s a huge attrition rate of part-time and seasonal workers to boot. About 40% of people who do one holiday season don’t do another, according to the agency’s own research.
Park West is a microcosm of the challenges facing the USPS. It’s hardly an ideal working situation there. The sanitizer dispenser at the door is empty, the “stand here” feet stickers are curling and strips of the floor are covered in in grey-blue rugs that are neither recognizably cloth or plastic. The air conditioning, on a day when the temperature was in the 70s, barely functioned. (A message to the American Postal Workers Union were not returned.)
The USPS, which generally receives no taxpayer funding, is responsible for its own revenue. But Americans just aren’t sending nearly as much mail as they used to given the ubiquity of texting, email, FaceTime and Zoom. Last year 13.5 billion letters were mailed, with the number of individual letters mailed last year falling 8.4% from the year prior. That’s down 45% from where it was just a decade ago.
An employee at the station says customers might be making too much of the lack of stamps.
“You can buy stamps in the vending machine” she said, gesturing toward it. (Yes, you can, we checked, only with a credit or debit card) but these are generic stamps of the American flag. No tulips, no elephants, Star Trek commemorative or holiday themes. “People don’t want those as much,” she said.
Indeed, the US Postal Service does a bustling business in the collectible stamps, offering one or more new series a month that are often bought up by collectors, not letter-mailers. (The USPS says its most popular commemorative stamp ever was the 1993 Elvis Presley.)
That said, the stamp problems at Park West appear to be an isolated incident. A handful of other city post offices are well-stocked with theme stamps. (Basic stamps just last month went up two cents; it now costs 60 cents to send a first-class letter). We checked.
Last April, President Joe Biden signed a sweeping bill into law that will overhaul the agency’s finances and modernize its fleet of trucks; they’re going electric.
Biden noted at the time that the Postal Service, founded in 1775 with Benjamin Franklin as its first postmaster general before becoming an official part of the government in 1792, “is fundamental to our economy, and the very sense of who we are as a nation.”
As for the Park West Post Office? On Friday morning, Postmaster Diaz could confirm “the situation has been resolved.” After about two weeks of scarcity, it has sheets of tiger, elephant, hearts, tulips and mariachi band commemorative stamps. Believe us. We checked.
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