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Why your USPS mail package delivery is about to get slower

A U.S. Postal Service truck drives in Philadelphia. The service is about to set longer delivery standards for first-class packages, in a move that its regulator says will not have a big effect on its finances.
Matt Rourke
A U.S. Postal Service truck drives in Philadelphia. The service is about to set longer delivery standards for first-class packages, in a move that its regulator says will not have a big effect on its finances.

Updated April 21, 2022 at 12:21 PM ET

More of your mail is about to get slower. First it was letters and now some packages may take longer to arrive.

The U.S. Postal Service currently considers a first-class package to be late if it's delivered more than three days after it was sent. But under new standards that take effect next month, more than 30% of first-class packages will be seen as delivered on time if they arrive within four or five days.

The new standards are part of the postal service's move to rely more on its own ground transportation network rather than using air transport. The USPS wants to be more efficient, and it says it will save money by reducing air costs.

Here's what the changes will look like

The changes that take effect on May 1 deal only with first-class packages, which mainly include small and lightweight packages such as prescription drug orders. Right now, more than 20% of those packages have a two-day delivery standard, and nearly 80% have a three-day standard.

Some packages will see delayed deliveries, particularly if they travel long distances. But the new rules won't affect about 64% of first-class packages, the USPS says. A small number — 4% — will move to a shorter standard of two days instead of three.

"The Postal Service is continually looking for ways to improve performance and provide customers with consistent, cost-effective, and reliable service," USPS spokesperson Kim Frum told NPR. "Modifying service standards would allow for additional transport time and increased efficiencies across the networks."

The longer delivery standards for packages come months after the USPS slowed delivery standards for first-class letters last fall. Packages were initially intended to be part of that same shift, but the agency delayed that part of the change until this spring.

In the first quarter of 2022, the average time to deliver a piece of mail or a package was 2.7 days, according to the USPS. First-class mail, which had risen to nearly 90% on-time delivery after standards were eased last fall, fell to 86.7% in this year's first quarter.

It's the latest policy shift at the Postal Service

The USPS has been the focus of heated debates over its mission and goals for the past two years, after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was named to the position during former President Donald Trump's term in office. DeJoy has been criticized for his cost-cutting plans. And last summer, news emerged that DeJoy, a prominent donor to Republican politicians, was under federal investigation for possible campaign finance violations during his tenure leading New Breed Logistics.

The USPS says it wants to get more out of its ground network, saying the average truck runs at only 40% capacity. By boosting that usage, it says it can provide more reliable service that's not affected by changing conditions and costs of air transport.

The service's regulator, the Postal Regulatory Commission, has repeatedly said DeJoy's plans could have an outsize effect on USPS customers, when compared to its bottom line.

In an advisory opinion last September, the commission agreed that the package volume being designated for longer delivery times had consistently failed to meet goals, and it said USPS does seem to deliver better service when relying on its own network.

But the commission also questioned the USPS' predictions for the new standards' impact, noting that its models used data from October 2020 — a unique time in its history, given the stresses brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The regulator also said the Postal Service hadn't accounted for another challenge to its plan: the shortage of truck drivers. And it expressed concern that the USPS might not have a detailed idea of consumers' preferences for delivery times. It also found the service's "estimated cost savings may be inflated."

On a more basic level, the commission doubted the USPS' ability to implement its proposal, stating, "At present, the Postal Service has not demonstrated that it can achieve reliability, efficiency, and economy in its service standard changes."

On the financial side, even if the Postal Service's savings predictions are accurate, the commission said, its own analysis found that "the proposed changes would not substantially affect the Postal Service's overall financial condition."

Those concerns echoed doubts the regulator raised last summer, as the USPS prepared to institute delays in first-class letter delivery.

As in other recent service updates, the new delays come as prices continue to rise. The USPS is proposing to raise the cost of a first-class stamp from 58 cents to 60 cents, citing inflation and operating expenses. At this time last year, the price was 55 cents.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.