By: Bryan Horwath, Forum News Service, INFORUM
DICKINSON, N.D. – People in the energy-impacted areas of western North Dakota have been dealing with U.S. Postal Service problems since the onset of the oil boom.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said Friday she wants to see solutions.
Speaking at a forum including both local and regional Postal Service leaders at the Strom Center, the North Dakota Democrat said she will push to find solutions to the many challenges facing post offices in and around the booming Bakken region.
“I’ve been all across North Dakota and I don’t go anywhere where I don’t hear about the post office,” Heitkamp said. “I’m concerned about service standards. The postmaster general keeps insisting that the most it would ever take is three days (to mail a letter). We don’t think that’s what the American public sees, especially in rural communities.”
A number of speakers said Friday that mail delivery has suffered and wait times for customers at post offices have significantly increased. At the same time, the high cost of living in the Oil Patch and an abundance of available jobs with competitive salaries has stretched the Postal Service thin as it tries to find and retain employees to meet its growing demand.
Heitkamp listened to multiple concerns from a room of about 30 people. Among them were Roy Reynolds, the Postal Service’s district manager for the Dakotas, and Karen Frederickson, its outreach program manager.
“There isn’t anyone employed at the Dickinson Post Office who isn’t burned out,” said Randy Roemmich, who has been a mail carrier in Dickinson for the past 32 years. “Saying the last three years have been a challenge would be an understatement. We’ve dealt with understaffing. We’ve dealt with carriers working up to 80 hours per week. We’ve dealt with threats of discipline for carriers not working over 12 hours (per day), and we’ve dealt with ultimatums where people are told not to file a grievance or they’ll have to carry even more (mail).”
Dickinson City Commissioner Klayton Oltmanns told onlookers that he, like others who spoke at the forum, knew firsthand of days when he didn’t receive mail because a carrier had taken a day off, only to not have a replacement on the route.
“Even though I live in town, I’m still on a rural route,” Oltmanns said. “On Tuesday, our mail didn’t get delivered. On Wednesday, our carrier was back and she said she had a pre-planned vacation day for Tuesday and a replacement wasn’t provided, so her mail route did not get delivered. Working in a financial advising office, I have SEC regulations and I have to get trade confirmations, along with other statements. It’s very troubling.”
Though Reynolds said he wasn’t surprised by anything he heard during Friday’s forum, which lasted more than two hours, he admitted he was unaware that some mail was going undelivered.
“A lot of this is the first time I’m hearing about this,” Reynolds said. “It’s extremely difficult to find workers. We weren’t hiring career employees for a while because we were restructuring the post office. But now headquarters has pretty much said that we can hire to our caps here in the oil area with career employees.”
Though Reynolds seemed blindsided by some of the issues raised — during a break in the forum, he questioned Frederickson about why he was not made aware of mail routes going undelivered when carriers take time off — he was quoted in a January 2013 Forum News Service story stating he planned to remedy some of the issues Oil Patch customers were facing then and “restore faith in the service.”
Though Postal Service employees in certain places, such as Alaska and Hawaii, receive stipends in an effort to offset high costs of living, Reynolds said the same isn’t likely to happen for employees in the Oil Patch.
“The post office isn’t in the housing market — we’re just not set up to do that,” Reynolds said. “They’re looking at some different monetary methods for this area, but that’s probably not going to happen. The biggest issue we have is keeping employees, so we could be looking at some type of retention payments.”
Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the Postal Service, recently completed her first year in office and said her staff has received feedback about Postal Service issues from the start.
“We’ve got the double whammy here of the challenges of the post office in general and the challenges of this economic growth in North Dakota,” Heitkamp said. “What we have in this country is a unified and universal delivery system and we don’t leave anyone out of that.
I’ve heard too many complaints from North Dakotans and it absolutely needs to be fixed. As long as I’m a U.S. senator, I’m going to fight to make sure that nobody at the end of the line in a rural area gets left out.”