In March, Oakland Postmaster Sunil Chanan sent Oakland residents a letter detailing a worrisome trend: postal employees, and particularly mail carriers, are being targeted in “criminal acts.” Thieves have been following carriers, mailboxes are being burglarized, and mail is being stolen at different points of the delivery system.
The USPS in Oakland has faced numerous challenges in recent years. Oakland delivery has been surprisingly inconsistent. Residents have lost time-sensitive documents and medicines, and some neighborhoods have gone weeks without receiving mail.
Local USPS leadership says the problems are mainly due to a shortage of workers. Some carriers previously told The Oaklandside the labor shortage is a result of employees quitting because the work is hard for low pay. But the burglary issue had not surfaced, until now, as a big enough issue affecting workers and their job.
We contacted the USPS and its workers to find out whether the Oakland office is on the right track to improving conditions for its workers, how Oakland carriers are dealing with the burglaries, and whether safety issues have affected the delivery of mail.
What is happening in Oakland
The robberies targeting mail carriers in Oakland are not isolated incidents. They are part of a nationwide increase in crimes targeting USPS property across the country, according to Jeff Fitch, a USPS federal inspector The Oaklandside spoke with this week.
Part of the USPS police force tasked with preventing fraud and mail theft, Fitch said carriers everywhere had been robbed at gunpoint, by knife, or through other violent means. In the Bay Area, there has been an uptick of robberies in Hayward, San Leandro, Vallejo, San Francisco, and Sunnyvale. But Oakland has seen the highest numbers.
“Our concern is the safety of the letter carriers so they can go about their duties,” Fitch said.
Several Oakland mail carriers have been victims of multiple robberies this year, according to the USPS. One carrier has been robbed six times in Oakland, the last time on March 15.
Groups of people have committed some of the robberies, while others have been the work of individuals. Theives often go after large pieces of mail or boxes that may contain valuables, such as computers. They also try to steal universal postal keys, which are used by carriers to open mailboxes at apartment complexes and businesses. Burglars that steal individual envelopes are likely doing it to gather personal information that is then used in identity theft and fraud.
Oakland USPS union leader Ed Fletcher, of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 1111, said there were multiple armed robberies in February. Fletcher said there have been about 20 total armed robberies of mail carriers in the last few years, and there have been “countless” times people have broken a window of a mail truck while the carriers were out delivering mail.
“The carriers have to be super aware of their surroundings,” Fletcher said. “February was really bad. Two postal vehicles had the [trucks] locks shot out. One carrier was approached when they were opening the truck, and one carrier had a gun stuck in their faces [asking for the universal keys.”
A letter carrier who works in Oakland who asked not to be named because they don’t have the authorization to speak to media told us that part of the reason why robbers are targeting them is that local police officers do not respond to their calls.
“I’ve called the police in the middle of a crime, and they don’t answer or blow off the answer,” the carrier said. “Our postal police, the investigators, usually come, but after the fact. If you’re in the midst of something, it’s a crapshoot. The job is hard enough job as it is.”
Fitch said that a renewed partnership between the USPS officers and the Oakland police robbery unit is allowing them to share information about possible suspects that will hopefully lead to arrests. The USPS currently has two teams of inspectors working in Oakland, one looking into mail theft and the other looking into the robberies.
“We take these robberies and assaults personally, and there is no more important mission for us as federal agents,” said inspector Rafael Nunez last week at a press conference detailing the issues facing Oakland carriers.
As for what Oakland residents can do to help, Fitch said reporting crimes is important. But he added that people should never try to confront a suspect in the middle of a robbery because they could be injured or killed.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the Postal Service to provide more resources to [prevent this from happening,]” the union’s Fletcher said.
Mail carriers are afraid but still go out and do their job
We spoke to several Oakland mail carriers, including those who worked in the most difficult parts of town like East and West Oakland. Some felt burned out, a few were scared, especially when they work close to dusk, while others tried not to think about it too much, they told us. Mail carriers working most of their routes in North Oakland were not as worried about the violence but felt compassion for their colleagues.
“They’re the ones dealing with the worst of it,” a long-time carrier in Rockridge told us.
One of the carriers was robbed recently while opening the back of their truck, while another had a gun pointed at their face.
According to mail carriers, several of their colleagues have experienced PTSD and sought therapy. One driver experienced nightmares replaying the moment an attacker put a gun to their head, their colleague told us. When these carriers went off the job to get better, their routes were sometimes not immediately covered, leading to delays that residents have complained about.
“The average person who works for the USPS is just a family member. They want to go home at night and not have to wonder the next morning whether today is the day [that something goes wrong],” Fletcher said.
The last time a mail carrier was shot in Oakland in the middle of a robbery was in 2008 in East Oakland. In 2017, a delivery worker was shot in her truck, although police said the shooting was unrelated to the carrier’s job. And just three months ago, West Oakland postal worker Dilma Spruil was stabbed to death as she walked near her home, after leaving her shift at 12:30 a.m. sorting mail at the USPS distribution center on 7th Street in West Oakland.
Joshua Pearl, a long-time USPS carrier, told The Oaklandside that many colleagues would like to take time off to deal with their mental health but can’t afford to do so. He said he would fear going back to work on Saturdays in East Oakland.
“No job is worth having a gun put to me,” he said.
Pearl said he’s encouraged by new delivery directives the Sacramento-area district manager has been implementing for the last few months in Oakland and which are making it a bit safer for carriers. The biggest one is the new 7 p.m. curfew. Whereas up to a few months ago, there were more carriers working as late as 10 p.m.—“Berkeley was notorious for that,” Pearl said,—routes are being rearranged to get carriers to stick to an 8-hour schedule.
“That has nothing to do with safety [on the surface,] because it’s trying to optimize stations and zones,” said Pearl. “But forcing carriers to a stricter timeline has made them less likely to be out at night, where they can be attacked,” he said. It also makes it more likely they will put off mail deliveries.
But lots of local post offices need more staffing to ensure letters and packages get delivered in a reasonable amount of time, and in a safe manner.
“Oakland, Richmond, and Vallejo are the higher crime places,” a USPS worker told us. “They tend to have a harder time finding people,” the USPS worker told us.
USPS spokesperson Meiko Patton told the Oaklandside that they’re not able to share the number of people who have been hired in Oakland.
“We are continuing to hire not just in Oakland, but across the country. We are hiring year-round,” she said.
To bypass the stolen key issues, Oakland USPS managers are also now working more with building owners to use more button push codes and touchscreen security to deliver mail. Some are even providing new physical keys to delivery workers that are nearly impossible to bypass using the universal keys.
But Pearl said there are still plenty of people in Oakland who should be concerned about their mail delivery being stolen, particularly from older buildings around the Adams Point neighborhood as well and streets surrounding Macarthur Boulevard. Those homes, he said, have old mailboxes, and people can open them with a screwdriver.
Other Oakland neighborhoods are facing an even more difficult situation: how to ensure their whole personal mailbox isn’t stolen. An Oaklandside reader who lives in the Monte Vista Village, next to I-580, told us last week that whole mailboxes were recently ripped out of the ground.
Some residents are still missing important parcels and letters, while others say things have improved a little
Some frustrated Oaklanders have bought P.O. Boxes as a solution to mail delivery problems they’ve experienced. Some told us they have their deliveries sent to an address in another city they have access to, or their workplace, while others use private delivery companies, and some have signed up for USPS Informed Delivery, the free online service that notifies people when mail is expected to be delivered, even if it still takes a while to come in.
East Oakland resident Kara Nielsen, who lives in the Frick neighborhood near Mills College, told The Oaklandside that problems at the Eastmont post office, including missing mail and lack of communication about it, have caused significant delivery delays for her. She never received the car insurance papers she expected months ago and also had to wait to receive her driver’s license renewal from the DMV. She’s often seen her neighborhood’s mail carrier working on Sundays to catch up on the area’s backlog. She said she feels for the USPS staff who, despite the new efficiency directives, still often have to work overtime.
“Service has gotten terrible in the last month, but it has always been poor. I talked to the carrier, and she said they keep moving her around. There are also lots of misdelivered mail, because the [replacement] doesn’t know the area,” said Nielsen. “I feel for them, as I heard about the guns. I don’t blame people for not wanting to be a postal worker.”
Andy Powning, who runs a flower business out of his home in East Oakland, told the Oaklandside in an email that he had waited for mailed payments for weeks in late December. Powning was “exasperated” with the poor service. He’d waited in line with other residents at his local post office, hoping to see his mail, likely waiting to be delivered.
“I need, and rely on, regular mail service to run my business, to receive payment from my customers so I can pay my bills,” he said.
In the last two months, though, Powning said service has improved. “Their problems are not of their own making, [especially] with mail carriers being robbed.”
Some residents say they are seeing good delivery times for important parcels like medicines. A retired lawyer who lives in Oakland said it appeared to her that the USPS was delivering important mail that was “easily identifiable.” Still, she wishes the service would go back to its more frequent and consistent level of service.
“It’s sad and infuriating because it forces you to lower expectations, especially thinking about what it used to be,” the lawyer said.
Rebecca Bodenheimer, a freelance journalist who lives in East Oakland and who told The Oaklandside in October that mail was delayed in her neighborhood, said that there had been no recent issues there.
“We’re getting mail every day. I know the mailman so he’s definitely been a regular,” she said.