First-class mail was delivered late this summer more often in Minnesota than in many other places around the country, a trend that peaked around mid-July when one in four pieces of mail wasn't delivered on time.

For that week, the delivery district that includes Minnesota was the sixth worst out of 68 districts nationwide for on-time delivery.

But despite rising concern over the U.S. Postal Service's ability to handle an expected crush of mail-in ballots owing to COVID-19 — a concern that's been heightened by President Donald Trump's frequent criticism of the federal agency — mail carriers in Minnesota believe they'll rise to the job and get the mail out on time.

It's a matter of pride, said Troy Fredenburg, a leader of the National Association of Letter Carriers union that represents city mail carriers. "They know they're going to have to step up their game," he said. "I've never seen them fail."

By almost any measure, the USPS has had an extraordinary year, from weathering bad publicity in April when Trump said the agency was "a joke" to sudden changes made this summer by new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that led to confusion and delays.

Despite the removal of several sorting machines at the postal service's Minnesota hub in Eagan due to DeJoy's shake-up of the system, local deliveries have not seen the massive pileups reported elsewhere.

A successful legal challenge to those changes launched by attorneys general in 14 states, including Minnesota, led to a stinging rebuke of DeJoy by a U.S. District Court judge in Yakima, Wash., who said the timing of the changes amounted to an act of voter disenfranchisement.

DeJoy, in a new directive that went into effect Oct. 1, gave local mail officials the authority to use overtime and extra trips to ensure that all election mail gets delivered.

"The U.S. Postal Service's number one priority between now and the November election is the secure, on-time delivery of the nation's election mail," DeJoy said in a statement.

A USPS spokeswoman said she was tracking down information to explain the delays and how they could be fixed but did not have it available late last week. Multiple calls made to several postal employee unions to ask about delivery times for this story were not returned. Fredenburg spoke to the Star Tribune before the statistics were available, but could not be reached later.

Working long hours

Extra measures had been planned in Minnesota for the expected surge in this year's mail-in ballots, in anticipation that many people would take steps to avoid person-to-person contact at the polls owing to the coronavirus outbreak.

Fredenburg said a new policy this year will place a local USPS official at each of the 273 post offices in his region covering Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas as a sort of front-line response to any problems that come up with election mail. If the problem can't be resolved locally, it will be kicked up to Fredenburg's level along with another district manager for speedy resolution.

The election comes as the pandemic has placed extra burdens on mail carriers. Though first-class mail is down in the third quarter over last year by 8.4%, or about 1.1 billion pieces, package volume has risen by about 50%, or 708 million pieces.

In addition to handling more packages, mail carriers also are facing more work hours because the pandemic has caused staffing issues. If a letter carrier comes in contact with someone who's positive for COVID, they must quarantine for 14 days following medical guidance, said Fredenburg.

"The city letter carriers are working enormous hours right now," he said.

USPS data tracking weekly delivery rates of first-class mail show that about 15 out of every 100 pieces weren't delivered on time in the last week of August. The weekly delivery statistics for the nation were first provided to the Associated Press, and the Star Tribune purchased the data from the AP to conduct a local analysis.

The USPS has a goal of delivering 95% of first-class mail on time. According to the data, the Northland District that includes Minnesota and western Wisconsin had its best week this summer in mid-June, when more than 92% of first-class mail was delivered on time.

For that week, the district was in the top half of districts nationally for delivery times. But for several other weeks this summer, the Northland District ranked in the bottom quarter nationally for punctual first-class mail deliveries.

Jeff Larsen, president of Mail Handlers Local 323, told his members this summer in a newsletter that he had never been more concerned for the future of the union, mail handlers and the postal service. He wrote that DeJoy's changes had diminished the culture of the post office.

Postal workers take pride in getting all the day's mail out and not leaving any pieces for the next day, wrote Larsen, and now that could change.

"I believe that service to the American people is a noble undertaking that makes us proud to be mail handlers and proud to be postal employees," Larsen wrote. "So what comes next? That is hard to say."

Willie Mellen, a national business agent for the American Postal Workers Union, said it's frustrating for mail workers to hear about delays.

"It has bristled some of us that higher-ups are trying to delay the mail," he said. "If you were a person on the workroom floor who willfully delayed mail you would be disciplined. ... And yet the higher-ups are changing the rules to delay the mail."

Mellen said increased package deliveries during the pandemic has mail volumes running at levels usually seen during the Christmas rush. Mail volumes generally rise in the fall, he said, and the combination of more mail and the recent decision to pull seven sorting machines from the Eagan hub will put additional strain on the mail.

Still, Mellen said, the public shouldn't be afraid that the mail will be greatly affected. "Postal workers are really dedicated and work really hard to get that mail out," he said.

Many local residents continue to have faith in the postal system. St. Paul resident Alice Duggan said she's been writing letters to potential voters as part of a get-out-the-vote campaign, and relying on the USPS to get them delivered.

"They're my heroes," she said. "And history matters a lot to me and it matters a lot that this country has always had some kind of delivery service, even when it was by stagecoach or Pony Express. I am proud of our mail carriers."

Duggan said she's planning a short celebration next weekend at her local post office, when she will join others to drop off their letters and send them on their way.

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.