Regina Weichert has come to dread the part of the day that brings her to the Edgartown post office, and as she emerged from the facility yesterday afternoon with a pile of mail, she could only sigh.
"Do you want to know how bad the line is?" she asked as she made her way to her car. "It's terrible. It's always terrible."
In what used to be a minor task in her day, Ms. Weichert's trip to retrieve her employer's mail has in recent months become a major headache. "I try different times of the day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes the afternoon, but it rarely makes a difference. There always seems to be a line," she said.
It's a lament that has become all too familiar to Edgartown residents.
In the past months, long, snaking lines have turned what was once a quick stop to mail a few letters into an ordeal that can take as long as 45 minutes. A major loss in staff at the post office began last spring, and through the summer the number of full-time postal employees dwindled to half its normal size. The absence of replacements has left frayed nerves and short tempers on both sides of the counter.
"I just go to another post office," Ms. Weichert said. "I try to avoid this place altogether."
Postal employees in Edgartown meanwhile are scrambling to keep up with the neverending flow of mail that pours in and out of the building at the Triangle each day. And as the long lines continue, postal patrons want to know: When will there be relief?
The official answer comes from a public affairs spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service based in Providence, R.I. "The Edgartown post office is certainly understaffed at the moment," said Christine Dugas this week. "But people should understand that we're doing everything we can. We hope people will be patient with the staff."
Ms. Dugas said the staff shortage at the Edgartown facility is being addressed and temporary relief is being sought. She cited the recent retirement of several employees as the main cause of the problem, noting that another employee is out on medical leave.
Ms. Dugas said the Edgartown post office normally operates with a staff of about 12, but over the summer the number dropped to six. Advertisements for temporary help, or "casuals," were posted, but so far no spots have been filled.
Landing permanent postal employees involves a more complex process. Full-time postal employees must first pass an exam before being added to a regional register of eligible candidates. Once a register is established, the U.S. Postal Service can draw from it to fill vacant spots. The exam is offered about every two years to keep the register full. Currently the register is empty, and an exam has yet to be offered, according to Ms. Dugas, but she believes the next exam will be given soon.
"But I have no idea when the register would be opened," she admitted.
"We are certainly aware of it, we apologize for the inconvenience, and we're doing everything we can to resolve it," she said.
Edgartown residents are quickly running out of patience. Along with the seemingly endless lines, service has been patchy and now the post office is subject to unscheduled closings at odd hours of the day.
"It's really absurd how long it takes to get to the window," said Mike Barnes, who owns Above Ground Records across the street at the Triangle. A daily patron of the post office, he can only laugh and throw up his hands when talking about the impact the long lines have had on his business.
"I have to send one of my employees to get stamps or mail a bill and I might not see him for almost an hour," Mr. Barnes said with a shake of his head. "When I am paying someone to stand in line, it's especially discouraging when they come back 45 minutes later, when it is literally right across the street. We joke about going to the Vineyard Haven post office because it could save money in terms of employee productivity."
Nearby at the Mailroom, a shipping and packaging center that specializes in UPS and FedEx deliveries, the problem is written on the faces of people who wander in with letters and boxes in tow.
"While I wouldn't call it a boom in business, we have definitely had people come in that are fed up with the lines at the post office," said the Mailroom's Carla Ross, who has seen a steady flow of disgruntled customers throughout the summer. "People are exasperated, and they will do anything not to have to wait all that time to mail their packages," she said.
That includes shipping a package through the Mailroom at a much greater cost than the post office to avoid the lines, Ms. Ross said.
"I have seen people bring in a postage-paid return letter that is a free shipment at the post office and pay us to ship it," she said. "People just can't afford to wait all that time."
The long line is not the only thing that has stirred the ire of postal patrons. Many claim the post office has mixed up their mail or, in some circumstances, lost mail altogether. The lack of help has led to a backup of incoming mail and left employees juggling responsibilities. Third class mailings, including catalogs and other bulk mail intended for distribution, have frequently been left unattended, piling up in the back.
"I waited in line for over half an hour once only to find out at the window that they misplaced the package they notified me about," Ms. Weichert says. "The staff is super nice, but they really need to do something about the situation now."