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Lancaster Mail Gets Through--Albeit Late : Post office: Officials say internal problems led to delays as long as four days during the first three weeks of April, forcing the use of relief teams from other offices.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 100,000 people served by the Lancaster post office suffered late mail deliveries for much of last month because of internal problems that postal officials attributed in part to poor management.

Officials with the U.S. Postal Service said some Lancaster-area mail was consistently delayed, for as long as four days, for the first three weeks of the month. But postal workers said that there were delays of up to two weeks and that the problems began much earlier than April.

The breakdown led to a huge backlog of undelivered mail piling up at the Lancaster post office by mid-April. It forced postal officials to bring in relief teams of workers from other offices and to start diverting Lancaster mail for processing at a regional facility in Van Nuys.

The problems appear to bolster recent complaints by officials in the Lancaster School District who are angry over the defeat of their $47-million school bond measure on the April 10 ballot. Postal officials returned two undelivered campaign mailers to district officials about a week after the election.

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School officials complained that the Postal Service was to blame and have called for a federal investigation. Postal officials continue to insist that the mailers were either improperly labeled or mailed too late. But postal officials admit that the Lancaster office was in disarray at the time the mailer should have been delivered.

“I knew we had a real severe problem from the standpoint we were backed up. It was going to take a special effort to get us caught up,” said Bill Jackson, the Van Nuys-based postmaster in charge of the region that includes the San Fernando and Antelope valleys.

“I don’t think we were in a position up in Lancaster where we broke down. But the mail condition got too far behind, and I don’t think Lancaster could have got caught up without some outside assistance,” said Jackson, who has 25 years with the postal service and lives in Lancaster.

A top union official said Lancaster’s problems were the worst he had seen in more than two decades in the business.

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“The problem there was to such a degree it’s never happened before to my knowledge,” said Louie Eng, president of the American Postal Workers Union local in the San Fernando Valley.

Jackson said the main cause for the backup was that the Postal Service’s Mojave facility began to pre-sort less of the mail destined for Lancaster. With less mail pre-sorted, clerks at Lancaster could not handle the load and the operation began to fall behind.

But he also blamed the managers at the Lancaster office, saying they failed to adequately train their clerks for the office’s recently changed mail-sorting system and then misjudged the severity of the ensuing problems. “If you wanted to blame somebody, you’d have to blame management,” Jackson said.

But some postal workers said the main cause of the breakdown was that some Lancaster sorting clerks, fed up with long hours of forced overtime trying to keep up with the mounting piles of mail, staged a work slowdown in protest.

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“They were tired of working so many hours. They were tired of having their days off canceled. Some of them said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore,’ ” said one postal worker, a letter carrier at the Lancaster office who requested anonymity because of fear of retaliation.

Jackson said the Lancaster post office began having consistent delays in delivering mail at the end of March and through much of April. He said 20% to 30% of first-class letters were getting delayed an extra day, and bulk mail--often advertisements--was getting backed up three to four days.

But postal workers at several facilities familiar with the situation said they had been told by supervisors that mail through Lancaster had been delayed up to two weeks. Others said they knew that to be true because they had seen the deposit postmark dates on delayed mail.

“They were delayed on all classes of mail. They had a serious problem up there. It got out of control,” said one worker at the Van Nuys regional office. Another postal worker said he got some Lancaster City Council election mailers delivered at home two weeks after the election.

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Until last month, the Lancaster postmaster’s job had been vacant since mid-November. A veteran official, J. L. (Woody) DeWitt, took over the job in early April. Jackson said he only realized the seriousness of the delays when he went to the Lancaster office when DeWitt assumed the job.

Mail was stacked up throughout the post office, and the situation was so disorganized that postal workers had lost track of the color coding system they use to date bulk mail. Jackson said the backlog was at 200,000 pieces of mail, but several workers said their estimate was 500,000.

When Jackson returned a week later in mid-April, the problem had intensified. At that point, Jackson said, he ordered the backlog of mail trucked to Van Nuys, where it could be sorted by machine and returned to Lancaster. He also brought in postal workers from Van Nuys, Mojave, Palmdale and Santa Clarita to work in the Lancaster station.

Last week, Jackson and DeWitt both said that Lancaster had caught up in all mail deliveries and that the problems that caused the delays were being resolved. Jackson said Lancaster mail was no longer being sorted in Van Nuys. And DeWitt said, “I think the outlook is very good. Things are going as planned.”

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But postal workers in both the Mojave and Van Nuys facilities said some Lancaster mail still was getting trucked to Van Nuys for sorting. And, half a dozen or more workers from other offices remained at Lancaster last week, although Jackson said they soon would return to their home offices.

The problems at the post office came to light after some postal workers read news stories about the undelivered school district mailers and began calling both The Times and the school district to say they believed that the literature got lost in the disarray.

No one knows exactly why the mailers weren’t delivered because postal officials say they have no record of when the mailers arrived at the Lancaster post office. The literature was unusual because it was sent from Kentucky by a mass mailing firm on March 30 and April 2 at regular bulk rates, not overnight mail like other mailers.

Postal officials said their goal in handling such bulk mail from that distance is to have it delivered within 10 days, meaning that at best it would have arrived in Lancaster around Election Day. A Postal Service spokesman said the estimated 7,000 pieces were discovered the day after the election.

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Jackson said he could not prove that the mailers did not somehow get lost in the shuffle in the backlog at Lancaster. “I can’t say that with any absolute certainty,” he said. But he added, “They were cutting it very close under the best of circumstances.”


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