It was the kind of day at Santa Fe’s upscale Zocalo condominiums that gives new meaning to the term “going postal.”
A debit card landed in the wrong mailbox, misplaced by a postal carrier. The high school student who was expecting the card couldn’t process and pay for his online college applications.
The same student, Martin Soto, also lost an all-expense-paid trip to New York University because the time-sensitive travel documents mailed to him were delivered to the wrong address, said his mother, Meriam Jawhar.
Even in a high-tech world, where email long ago displaced the art of writing letters, the U.S. Postal Service can still be a critical part of people’s daily lives. It’s easy to forget that as you pay the cable company or the Internal Revenue Service with a few key strokes from your computer.
Numerous residents of the Zocalo condominiums say they would like to forget the Postal Service altogether. In their case, it’s delivering more panic than packages.
“Several years ago, I had a $1,400 check that sat in someone’s mailbox for eight or nine months. Fortunately, I was still able to cash it,” resident Alma Cassel said in recounting delivery errors.
Another member of her family waited three months for a passport, unaware that it had been delivered to the wrong box.
The Zocalo complex has 191 units. More than half of them are second homes or investment properties, meaning lots of residents live in other cities for part of the year.
That circumstance makes a mail carrier’s accuracy all the more important. Bills, college applications and immigration papers that a carrier deposits in the wrong box can go undetected for months.
Yvette Tapp said a check for just under $1,000 was issued to her in May 2013, but it never reached her mailbox. She recently received notice that the money would be turned over to the state government as unclaimed property.
As for Jawhar, her problems with mail delivery are especially burdensome. She has a brain injury and worries about her memory failing. She says it’s hard enough to keep track of her schedule and bills without the added worry of lost mail, a regular occurrence for eight years.
Her anxiety has worsened in the last several weeks because of a series of botched deliveries, as when a mail carrier placed the renewal policy for her car insurance in the wrong box.
Jawhar said her coverage was canceled because she didn’t pay the bill, never having received it. The insurance company later reinstated her policy, but her rates spiked by about $200 every six months because of the missed payment.
“It’s imposition after imposition,” she said.
Jawhar, an advocate for disabled people, also works as a personal assistant. Under the company’s payroll system, her checks were sent to her home, but the last one didn’t arrive in the mail.
Her distrust of the Postal Service has reached the point where she had her latest check routed to another address. Picking it up will be an inconvenience, but at least she will know where her check is, she said.
Jawhar has spent the summer documenting the high error rate in postal deliveries. She says at least 24 pieces of her mail were misplaced by carriers.
Her son’s debit card, plus Jawhar’s bills for auto insurance and health insurance, did not reach her home until Aug. 13, more than a month after they were postmarked.
How did mail delivery get this bad?
Mike Flores, operations manager of Postal Service in this region, said in an interview that he knew Jawhar had been frustrated by delivery problems. But, he said, he did not realize the trouble extended beyond her.
Jawhar says otherwise. Flores, various postmasters, the Office of the Inspector General and even members of Congress from New Mexico have been made aware of the problem and how widespread it is, she said.
When it comes to mail delivery, the condo residents agree with Flores on one point only.
He says the Postal Service has a first-rate carrier working the complex. His name is Buzz Nichols, and residents think highly of him. One called him a problem solver, skilled in fixing messes left by other carriers.
“Buzz Nichols knows 90 percent of the people on his route personally, and that’s out of 940 addresses,” she said.
But when he’s off or sick, mail is routinely misfiled, Zocalo residents say.
Flores acknowledges delivery failings because of reliance on backup carriers, not just at the complex, but everywhere.
The problem, he said, is that the Postal Service has to hire non-career carriers to help fill gaps in staffing. Mail is delivered six days a week, but most carriers don’t work every day, he said.
Carriers hired to help cover shifts make $13 to $15 an hour, but they’re not going to take the job if it’s only one or two days a week, Flores said.
So the inexperienced carriers may help cover four or five different routes in a week. This may slow employee turnover because they get more hours and more pay.
But the public gets less-reliable carriers. The fallout is obvious at Zocalo. People expecting important documents in the mail are less likely to receive them on time.
Flores wants carriers who are letter perfect. He says he gains nothing but headaches and angry customers when mistakes are made. He has promised more careful attention to deliveries at the Zocalo complex.
Most of us know the Postal Service is less relevant than it used to be. Worse, it’s not profitable.
It lost $2 billion from April to June and another $1.9 billion from January to March.
Carriers as able as Buzz Nichols will be harder to find — and probably impossible to retain — in this downward spiral.
Given its abundance of errors at Zocalo and other places, the Postal Service might reconsider the motto it had set in stone: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Swift coverage is certainly possible. After all, coyotes could be trained as watchdogs.
But Jawhar and her neighbors say speed doesn’t count for much when mail ends up in the wrong box, important documents never arrive and the bills aren’t paid.
(photos by Jane Phillips/The New Mexican)