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America is not delivering
How many times in the past year have you tracked a lost package? Probably more than you can count.
We talk a lot about the strain of the pandemic on America's health care system, which is severe. But a parallel crisis is unfolding in the nation's delivery system - the basic movement of goods and services.
Delivery is part of the American dream. You order something and it gets shipped or mailed as if by magic via "snail mail" like the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), or directly from the manufacturer or by the omnipotent Amazon or overnighted by services such as FedEx or DHL.
But what is happening behind the scenes of America's delivery infrastructure right now is frightening.
Consider the mail. We all have well-deserved respect for postal workers. The mailman or woman comes on their appointed rounds in rain or snow with uniforms that inspire us even if the dog is barking and the delivery includes a bill.
But in case you haven't noticed, for much of the past year, the postal system has been imploding under the pressure of COVID-19. It is losing money and delaying the mail.
Across the country, mail woes are mounting despite the e-everything world we live in. In St. Louis, postal workers have had to put in 12-hour days and work extra shifts to make a dent in the avalanche of letters and parcels. In Baltimore, utility customers have complained of getting bills in the mail that are already way past due.
Some of the U.S. postal system's problems are not new. It has struggled for years with financial losses due to declining mail use, an aging fleet of trucks and poor infrastructure made worse by the pandemic.
Financially, the Postal Service reported a net loss of $3 billion on total revenue of $18.5 billion for the fiscal year third quarter of 2021 - a roughly 36 percent increase over the same quarter last year, in which it reported a net loss of $2.2 billion.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has offered up a 10-year plan for the agency, with a program designed to cut costs and raise new revenue. But it will come at a price - even slower mail delivery times.
Until Oct. 1, the USPS said it should take no more than three days for a piece of first-class mail to be delivered anywhere in the country. Now it will take between two and five days because airplane deliveries will be replaced by truck deliveries and holiday surcharges will kick in.
But what about using services other than the USPS, such as FedEx? It has been around since 1965 with a system that promises to ship your goods anywhere in the world and get it done overnight.
But even FedEx is not immune to the effects of COVID-19. Worker shortages and financial woes have hit private delivery companies, slowing down their delivery times.
In Portland, Ore., recently, FedEx was operating with about 65 percent of the staffing needed to handle its normal volume - meaning that across the ground network, more than 600,000 packages are being rerouted daily. Earnings for shares in the Memphis, Tenn.-based company fluctuated in the past year due to increased costs for overtime and shipping delays, including clogged ports that are not allowing goods and services to move at top speed.
Once a package arrives at its destination, there is also no guarantee that it will find its owner. Package theft is at an all-time high, with 1.7 million packages lost or stolen every day in the U.S., according to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
So, what's the answer to the delivery conundrum?
First is automation. DHL, the international package and courier delivery service, is responding to shortages with increased use of robotics. Robots tend to show up for work, and they don't get COVID.
Secondly, we need to gear up with better ways to move goods and services that leverage technology. Whether it's delivery drones or those little objects that resemble "Stars Wars" figures that roam the streets of California, we must use artificial intelligence to scale up.
Third relates to wages. We must pay people more to deliver more. That means increasing the minimum wage across the country to make it profitable to work in the delivery sector. We still need people.
In a society that craves instant gratification, delays are hard to take. As the holidays arrive, the best advice might be to shop often and send early.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.