The delivery of first-class and priority mail is being intentionally delayed so that letter carriers can prioritize the delivery of Amazon packages, according to letter carriers at the Portland post office and an official complaint lodged with the Office of Inspector General.

The complaint accuses Postmaster James Thornton of delaying other mail by instructing clerks to sort Amazon packages first.

“Thornton is willfully delaying thousands of first-class and priority parcels so that fourth-class Amazon parcels can go out for delivery instead,” according to the complaint to the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General. It was filed July 13 and obtained by the Portland Press Herald this week.

The complaint was filed by Mark Seitz, a 16-year veteran of the postal service and the president of the Maine State Association of Letter Carriers and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Local 92. His allegation was corroborated by two other letter carriers who said they wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. Willful delay of the mail is a criminal offense under federal law.

Seitz’s complaint says that Thornton had done so on June 29, July 6 and July 13, all Mondays when the volume of mail is especially challenging. Two other carriers say it happens even more frequently.

Thornton is the postmaster of the Portland post office, which distributes the mail to carriers who deliver in Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland Foreside, Falmouth, Portland, Peaks Island, Scarborough, South Portland and Westbrook. Seitz estimated that the office serves somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 households.

Thornton did not return calls requesting an interview about the allegations.

A spokesman for the postal service provided a written response that did not deny or directly address the accusation.

“In our current environment, dealing with the health crisis and a surge in package volumes due to online shopping, both our delivery offices and mail processing facilities find themselves flexing resources daily and around the clock to continue to meet the changing needs of our customers,” said Steve Doherty, a Northeast region spokesman for the postal service.

The allegations were made as the postal service has come under immense pressure to make itself financially viable. The agency is struggling to handle a surge in online shopping deliveries while trying to cut costs by limiting overtime and reducing extra trips, both of which were ordered by the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. He already has come under scrutiny for new policies that normalize delivering mail late in exchange for cutting overtime, and the allegations made in Portland suggest that pressure to deliver Amazon packages on time may further jeopardize the timely delivery of mail for Mainers.

According to three letter carriers working out of the Portland office, enough mail to fill four to five “shark cages” – 4-by-5-foot bins containing mail – have been left in each of the office’s five units overnight multiple days per week. Carriers estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 first-class and priority packages were delivered late each time this happened.

Typically, letter carriers sort a small amount of mail in the morning before they begin their routes. If mail isn’t sorted by the time carriers leave, they return midday to collect it or an assistant carrier would step in and ensure that all the mail is delivered on time. Now, according to letter carriers inside the Portland post office, clerks are told to stop sorting by 8:30 a.m., an hour and a half before most carriers leave for their routes, and are then sent home to cut costs, leaving first-class parcels unsorted in the office overnight.

“The postmaster is telling the supervisors here to leave it, or telling the clerks to not scan it or leave it behind,” Seitz said. He was not sure why Thornton is making Amazon the priority, but said he suspected the practice was in response to pressure from superiors on the national level.

With an overload of parcels, which take longer to sort and deliver than flat mail, and new regulations that ban overtime pay, post offices must choose which mail gets delivered on time, and what will get delivered late. Although carriers say the priority is Amazon deliveries, even some Amazon packages are left behind in the office.

Postal service customers pay based on how quickly their mail must be delivered. First-class mail is anything with a stamp or a meter mark, and receives priority. Second-class mail includes periodicals, third-class mail typically consists of catalogs, and fourth-class mail is standard bulk mail – including Amazon packages.

“If it’s in the building, it’s supposed to go out to the street and get delivered,” said one letter carrier. “That’s a letter carrier thing. We live and die by that.”

According to letter carriers in Portland, it’s medications, paychecks and other first-class mail that’s getting left in the office overnight. They say Amazon packages are taking priority at the order of the postmaster and other supervisors in the building.

“We’ve even been told, at times, ‘I want everybody back in the office by seven, so make sure you deliver all the Amazon parcels, and if you can’t finish, then bring everything else back, but Amazon must go,'” Seitz said.

One issue, Seitz says, is that packages get scanned as “out for delivery,” but then carriers are called back in order to prevent them from working overtime. Customers tracking their mail are then left waiting, expecting packages to arrive that won’t come until the next day.

Amazon entered into a secretive contract with the postal service in 2013. Such private bulk contracts are allowed by law but must provide more revenue than they cost the postal service.

Some claim this contract has saved the USPS from financial ruin – the agency lost $8.8 billion last year – while others, including President Trump, have speculated that Amazon is bleeding the agency dry.

The Portland post office has struggled with a lack of adequate staffing for some time. The routes also haven’t been reviewed in seven years – just before Amazon started relying heavily on the USPS to deliver its packages – meaning that workloads have shifted but staffing has not. In November 2013, the USPS announced it would begin delivering packages on Sundays as a part of its contract with Amazon, shortening the weekend for many carriers.

“In 2013, for example, my route had 12 parcels on it,” Seitz said. “Now my route has 145 boxes. It’s crazy, and then they expect us to (deliver them) in the same amount of time.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent whose office is looking into the allegations in Portland, wrote in a May opinion column that, “the USPS isn’t a business – it’s a public service, designed to facilitate commerce in every corner of our country. Its goal isn’t to make profits, but rather to facilitate universal communication and give businesses across the country the opportunity to succeed.”

Seitz says part of the problem is that people view the agency as though it were a business that’s supposed to turn a profit. He also blames the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which mandates that the agency pre-fund health benefits for retirees up to 2056.

According to the National Association of Letter Carrier’s monthly publication, the “Postal Record,” the pre-funding mandate is responsible for 92 percent of the USPS’ losses since 2007. The union claims the USPS would have averaged over $600 million in profits between 2013 and 2019 had it not been for the mandate.

“It made it look on paper like we were losing that money, when in fact all we were doing was putting it from one account to another account, except the second account was controlled by the Office of Personnel Management,” Seitz said.

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “USPS Fairness Act,” which would repeal the pre-funding mandate, and the bill has been sent to the Senate.

On July 2, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced the Postal Service Emergency Assistance Act, which, among other things, would provide $25 billion in assistance to the USPS for COVID-19 related losses. Collins’ office said it has been trying to get more information from the postal service about the letter carriers’ allegations.

Amazon did not respond to an interview request.

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