USPS workers in Oakland have been working into the night for months trying to catch up on the large volume of mail for the election season. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Long-term staffing problems at East Oakland’s postal facilities have caused delivery delays and confusion over the past several months. Residents are concerned about missing time-sensitive goods and documents, including medicines and legal and financial materials. 

And many are worried that mail delivery problems might affect the election. Some residents told us they didn’t get their ballots until last week. The registrar originally started mailing ballots to voters on Oct. 10.

“We are currently experiencing some delays of mail related to low employee availability,” Kristina Uppal, spokesperson for the United States Postal Service’s Northern California office, told The Oaklandside. “We are utilizing all available resources currently, including bringing in carriers from outside the area to move the mail and meet our commitments.” 

The U.S. Postal Service says delivering ballots and official voter guides is its highest priority, and recently the USPS reassigned 12 postal workers from Southern California to Oakland to help sort through mail and make deliveries. 

Uppal said the USPS held recent recruiting events in Oakland that led to 100 new job applicants but she did not say how many of them will actually get a job and when those people might start working. 

“The ability to start as a full career employee is an amazing opportunity that was unheard of several years ago for external applicants,” Uppal said. 

A local USPS delivery person who asked to remain anonymous because they didn’t have permission to speak to the press told The Oaklandside it was hard to recruit people to work in East Oakland because of crime fears, particularly because carriers are often made to work overtime after sunset. Some postal workers have been robbed in recent years in East Oakland. The starting pay, the driver also said, is too low to incentivize new people to stay on the grueling job. 

“It’s a vicious cycle. They’re understaffed, so new hires quit. Older carriers are retiring. Staffing gets worse. Carriers are asked to do more work for longer and longer days, which leads to more bodies breaking down or injuries,” the mail carrier said. 

The Oaklandside recently spoke to several other USPS workers all over the city as they were delivering mail. The strain of their workload was apparent. Several times, they told us they had been working up to 13 hours per shift. Most looked exhausted, including one with an apparent leg injury.

“It’s been like this for a long time,” a carrier told us about the staffing issues, as they trudged through a North Oakland route. They also asked not to be named because they didn’t have permission to speak to the press.

This is not the first time Oakland residents have had mailing issues around election time. In the weeks leading up to the 2020 general election, which saw a big increase in voting by mail due to the pandemic, several Oakland USPS mailboxes were removed, causing Mayor Schaff and others to say they were politically motivated. Residents were able to either use available drop boxes or vote in person at one of many county voting centers, but that election also required postal employees to work deep into the night to deliver ballots and more.

Mail is often delivered after dark and days late

Rebecca Bodenheimer, a freelance writer in East Oakland, told The Oaklandside that when she went to find her missing mail at the local post office in mid-October, several people were already in line asking about the same issue.  

“You know, people are not getting their Social Security checks,” she said. “This could be very consequential for a lot of people.”

In the two weeks since we interviewed her, Bodenheimer has received a lot of the letters and packages she was expecting but which were delayed, including her ballot. This happened after USPS sent additional workers to Oakland to clear up the backlog. 

Another resident who contacted us through Twitter this week said her backlog of mail is just starting to get delivered, also from new delivery workers. 

Allie Whitehurst, from the League of Women Voters Oakland, a local good government advocacy group, said she thinks the noise that residents and voting rights groups made, and some media coverage, pushed USPS to address the problem. Whitehurst sent an email on Oct. 17 to Mayor Libby Schaff and councilmembers Treva Reid and Loren Taylor—and this reporter—letting the elected officials know that her 95-year-old neighbor Jessie Brown hadn’t received her ballot. On Oct. 23, Ms. Brown received a bundle of mail at 7 p.m. in the evening, including her ballot. 

In early October, one East Oakland resident posted a message on Nextdoor that some of his neighbors were angry because they hadn’t received mail at their home for weeks at a time. The resident, who also was experiencing delays, put up a video on Oct. 15 of himself demanding to know what the problem was at his neighborhood post office. The area’s main carrier, a USPS clerk told him, was out due to an injury and that he had no replacement. 

“So I will have to come and pick up my mail?” he asked the clerk. 

“I don’t know. I guess so,” the clerk replied. 

“This is very unacceptable. I will be placing another complaint,” the man said.

Unless residents have a P.O. box, they usually are not allowed to pick up their mail at their local post office. But P.O. boxes are in short supply in some areas. Rosie Velasco-Dodge, from Millsmont, said she went to two separate post offices near her home to sign-up for a P.O. box but was told there is a waitlist to get on them. She eventually had to get one in a nearby city. 

Salvador Perez, a 70-year-old Fruitvale resident, told us over the phone that he’s still waiting on his yearly property tax bill, which had a November 1 payment deadline. If it’s not paid by 5:00 p.m. on December 10, he’ll get a 10% penalty added to it, according to the county’s website. An Alameda County tax collector’s voice mailbox message said all tax property bills were mailed out by Oct. 31.

“Last year, and all the years before, I got my property taxes in early September,” Perez said. 

“But we had a mailman who suffered a stroke and retired recently. We’ve been having spotty mail service since, sometimes on Sunday and never at the same time.” 

Eastmont Hills resident Joelle Crepsac has been in conversation with a large group of neighbors to find out who has gotten their ballots and who hasn’t. Most of the neighbors received their ballots and voter information packets only in the last week, she said. She thinks the delivery delays have affected people’s right to vote as well as their well-being. One of her neighbors, for example, was still struggling to receive medications.   

“I bet that people in Piedmont and Montclair are getting their mail,” she said, referring to more affluent East Bay neighborhoods.

What impact could delivery delays have on the election?

The Alameda County Registrar’s office told us they are confident in the postal service’s ability to deliver ballots.

Vice Registrar Cynthia Cornejo told The Oaklandside that her office was in contact with the USPS as soon as the problems were brought to their attention. She said post office management “reassured us that the issue had been resolved and that they have put a priority on delivering election mail.”

Mailed ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 8 and the last day the registrar can receive ballots to count in the election is Tuesday, Nov. 15. So even if mail is delayed for six to seven days, these ballots will still be counted. As of yesterday, Cornejo said 155,648 ballots had come in from 930,524 registered Alameda County voters.  

The USPS is also confident they are delivering ballots on time. The postal service’s Uppal told The Oaklandside they are authorized to “use extraordinary measures to accelerate the delivery of ballots,” including adding additional collections, expanding working hours, and expediting delivery.

Oakland residents, on the other hand, say their recent experience has taught them not to trust the USPS. 

Shekinah Samaya-Thomas, a resident of Arroyo Viejo, said she has tried to use the USPS informed delivery service to determine how long it is taking to deliver mail in her neighborhood. She said she’s tracked letters that have taken more than two months to deliver.

“It’s just a hot mess and things have gotten way worse than in 2020 and the lockdown,” she said. 

Samaya-Thomas has not yet filled out her ballot but when she does and sends it back, she will either use the official drop boxes or deliver it by hand to her local voting center. 

“I always use a drop box to turn it in. Have for a couple of years now,” she said. “I do not trust local USPS to deliver our ballots.” 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.