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Audit shows mail delivery failed to keep up as Bakken boomed

FILE – A view shows U.S. postal service mail boxes at a post office in Encinitas, California in this February 6, 2013, file photo. REUTERS / MIKE BLAKE

WILLISTON, N.D. — A new audit shows the U.S. Postal Service in North Dakota rarely met national service standards in recent years, and high employee turnover contributed to delayed mail delivery and excessive customer wait times.

The audit by the Office of Inspector General concludes that while the Postal Service has taken action in response to the Bakken oil boom, more improvements need to be made to improve employee retention and customer service.

Some findings from the audit:

- North Dakota had a 165 percent increase in package deliveries from 2010-14, compared with the national average of 21 percent. The number of delivery points increased 14 percent, compared with 1 percent nationwide.

- Delivery staff were overworked, with rural carrier overtime increasing 241 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2014. Nationally, overtime increased 105 percent.

- Mail carriers in the Bakken returned from their routes after 5 p.m. as often as 56 percent of the time in fiscal years 2012 and 2013. This improved in 2014, dropping as low as 23 percent.

- While much of the audit focused on western North Dakota, it also recommends improvements to mail processing in Fargo and Bismarck and noted that the Fargo Prairiewood Station had the most instances of excessive wait times.

The audit was performed in response to a request from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who has asked residents to submit their concerns about mail delivery through her Fix My Mail campaign.

Difficulty hiring and retaining employees in western North Dakota contributed to many of the complaints raised by customers, the audit found.

Between October 2011 and September 2014, the Postal Service hired 77 carriers and transitional employees in Williston, Dickinson and Minot. Thirty-five of the carriers, or 45 percent, continued to be on the job in August 2014, the audit found.

Postal Service compensation, established through union negotiations, is not always competitive in western North Dakota, where employers in the energy field, as well as food and retail, offer higher pay, incentives and housing stipends.

Peter Nowacki, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said progress has been made to improve hiring and retention of employees, including some wage adjustments. Current openings in Williston start at $19.70-$19.98 an hour, he said.

To fill in for vacant carrier positions, the Postal Service also brings in employees from other areas of the country to work detail assignments in the Bakken. The audit said there were 99 detail assignments in fiscal year 2014.

Nowacki said the Bakken currently has 55 to 60 detail assignments. In a few cases, the workers have decided to take permanent positions in North Dakota, he said.

Other improvements the Postal Service has made include opening a second post office in Williston, adding 40 more rural routes since 2011 and installing self-service kiosks.

"The Postal Service has made a number of improvements to answer the challenges created by growth in the Bakken in western North Dakota and eastern Montana," Nowacki said. "Our commitment going forward is to keep working hard, keep working smart to provide the best possible service to our customers."

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