Our objective was to evaluate mail service during the early stages of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) disease pandemic.
On March 13, 2020, the President of the United States issued a national emergency declaration concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. With many Americans following stay at home guidance during the pandemic, the Postal Service’s mission to provide reliable, affordable, and universal service is more important than ever. To accomplish this mission, the Postal Service relies on key operational functions including mail processing, transportation, customer service, and delivery.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Postal Service provided vital service, including the delivery of critical items such as medications, stimulus payments, and Social Security checks. Further, the Postal Service is the leading delivery service provider for online purchases. A May 2020 Harris Poll survey on America’s 100 essential companies’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, ranked the Postal Service as number one, based on its resolve, integrity, responsiveness, and permanence.
On March 27, 2020, the president signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included a provision for the Postal Service to prioritize delivery of postal products for medical purposes. This law also allows the Postal Service to establish temporary delivery points to protect Postal Service employees and individuals receiving deliveries.
To lead its pandemic response, the Postal Service established a COVID-19 Response Command team at Postal Service Headquarters to help ensure a comprehensive approach to its response to the pandemic. The team provided employees a COVID-19 playbook focused on employee safety, maintaining operations, and customer communication.
The Postal Service also updated its Pandemic Influenza Plan, originally created in January 2007 to include COVID-19. The plan discusses the importance of a Continuity of Operations Plan to ensure essential service can be provided when employee availability falls below 60 percent. The plan also outlines the agency’s four goals — protecting employees, providing mail service, communicating with stakeholders, and supporting the federal response to COVID-19. Our audit focused on two of the four goals: (1) sustaining essential services during times of significant absenteeism and (2) communicating guidance to stakeholders during a pandemic. To further assess the impact of the pandemic at a local level, we evaluated seven judgmentally selected processing and distribution centers (P&DC) and 14 delivery units.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Postal Service faced unforeseen and uncontrollable challenges, including higher package volumes and employee absenteeism. Specifically, national package volume from March through May 2020 increased by 30 percent compared to the same period last year (SPLY) and was greater than 2019 holiday peak season volume. In addition, while employee availability at the national level stayed above the Postal Service’s 60 percent threshold needed to keep essential operations running, some areas of the country were hit harder by the pandemic and experienced lower employee availability.
Despite these challenges, we found that Postal Service management modified normal operations in mail processing, customer service, and delivery operations to mitigate the impact of the pandemic to meet its obligation of universal service. In addition, the Postal Service generally coordinated and communicated regularly with commercial mail customers.
While we generally found management was able to keep operations running, we also identified opportunities to improve the process for prioritizing the delivery of postal products for medical purposes, improve the employee availability dashboard by including rural delivery carriers, and improve the process for alerting units of late mail arrivals from P&DCs. In addition, we identified an opportunity for the Postal Service to improve communications with commercial mailer customers.
We recommend management:
- Establish a working group to perform a feasibility study on the potential implementation of a standardized automated process to identify and prioritize medical mail.
- Integrate rural carrier employee data into the employee availability dashboard.
- Establish a tool to obtain timely feedback to evaluate the effectiveness in communicating with commercial mail customers during extraordinary situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.