Briana Buotte holds a bearded dragon whose shipment of live insects she says died in the mail at her Litchfield home. Buotte is one of several central Maine residents who has complained about delayed and skipped deliveries from the United States Postal Service in recent months. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

LITCHFIELD — Twice now, the shipments of cockroaches that Briana Buotte ordered to be delivered via the U.S. Postal Service to her home on Hardscrabble Road have not survived.

That’s a problem for Buotte, who is out $100 on the insects, which are food for her daughter’s bearded dragon lizard. But it’s also a problem for people across central Maine, some of whom have been complaining that the U.S. Postal Service, among the most critical agencies of the federal government, is falling short in what they expect it to do — deliver their mail correctly and on time.

“For some reason, my first batch of insects was left at the Post Office all weekend, over a holiday weekend, so they died,” Buotte said. “The excuse was they were trying to protect them from the heat, so they kept them in the office.”

The second batch was left at a basement door — where she didn’t expect the package to be left and didn’t find it in time — and when she called her local Post Office to inquire, Buotte was told someone had filled in from another town.

“That still doesn’t explain why they left it at a basement door,” she said. Normally packages are left at the front door, where they are clearly visible to the family.

Complaints like Buotte’s have been popping up across central Maine and beyond as residents and business owners who rely on Postal Service delivery for everything from personal correspondence and prescription medications to pet food, payments and now, absentee ballots, have been frustrated by delayed and skipped deliveries.


In recent weeks, people across central Maine have taken to social media to complain about mail service in Augusta, Pittston, Dresden and Richmond, among others.

Even Informed Delivery, the Postal Service’s free notification service that allows people to see what incoming mail is expected soon, doesn’t help. Buotte said her family uses Informed Delivery and the service notified her she’d be receiving four envelopes and no packages one recent day. She received two packages but there was no sign of the letters.

At the same time, the Postal Service is struggling to meet its mission of delivering letters and packages while being short-staffed and hobbled by an antiquated hiring process and uncompetitive pay, the union representing mail carriers says.

The result is dissatisfaction all the way around: unhappy customers, unhappy carriers and no clear solution.


About 30 miles north of Litchfield sits Vienna, a town of fewer than 600 people with what residents say are unexpectedly complicated routes that have apparently stymied fill-in mail carriers.


For more than six weeks, longtime resident Marilyn Bean and her neighbors have noticed mail delivery errors. In some cases, outgoing mail sits in mailboxes for several days, in other cases the mail for three different addresses is left in one mailbox. At times, they have watched as a substitute carrier drives by several houses without stopping. Mail has been delivered as late as 9:30 p.m.

“I know it’s a difficult route,” Bean said. “If you could see the side roads in Vienna that the mailman has to go to, he must have to have backtrack several times. It’s not just one road, he has side roads to do.”

While not everyone gets mail every day, she said she gets plenty of junk mail as well as bills and personal correspondence with her friends. While she doesn’t get medications through the mail, Bean has a friend in Belgrade who receives prescriptions by mail. When they don’t arrive, her friend has to make calls to track them down and find someone to pick them up.

A United States Postal Service truck is seen delivering mail Thursday on Middle Road in Dresden. The Postal Service is short-staffed in some central Maine regions, leading to reports of delayed or undelivered mail for some residents and businesses. Jessica Lowell/Kennebec Journal

Bean said her son offered to fill in as a substitute to deliver mail in town but was told by the postmaster that that’s not how it would work; he’d have to substitute for other towns as well.

Laurie Bickford, Bean’s neighbor, has noticed that outgoing mail left in mailboxes is not being picked up, a sign that mail carriers are not stopping.

“My property tax payment was in there, so if that ends up late, and I get penalized, that’s the post office’s fault,” Bickford said.


Rural areas like central Maine face the same kind of last-mile challenges in mail delivery as they do in delivery of other services like cable television, high-speed internet and anything else that requires infrastructure and staffing. But unlike those services, the Postal Service, which supports itself from revenue generated from mail and package delivery, has a universal service obligation. That means regardless of how rural the area, it is obligated to provide a minimum level of service at affordable prices.

Meeting that obligation, though, is a challenge when the Postal Service is facing the same staffing issues that businesses both large and small do — finding enough people to fill vacancies.

For the two years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the unemployment rate in Maine was at historic lows, ranging from a high of 3.3% to a low of 2.9%. After reaching a peak of 9.1% in May 2020, it dropped back to 2.8% in August, ticking up slightly in September.

While the Postal Service declined to be interviewed for this story, Postal Service communications staff members provided some information at the request of the Kennebec Journal.

Stephen Doherty, a strategic communications specialist with the Postal Service’s Atlantic Area-Northeast Region, said the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the workforce.

“Temporary issues with employee availability due to the COVID pandemic continue to strain our available resources and we are aggressively hiring to fill all vacant positions,” Doherty said via email in August.


Over the course of the summer, when many complaints about mail delivery surfaced on social media, Doherty said postal employees, like everybody else, were taking time off for summer vacations, stretching resources.

“We use every resource available to us to including authorizing overtime, delivering mail earlier and later in the day or on Sundays and, in extreme cases, having postmasters, managers and supervisors delivering mail to ensure that our customers get the service they deserve,” he said.

And, he noted, workers are moved to neighboring offices of communities to fill in for short-term vacancies.

At that time, Maine had 38 vacancies, but that number, which can fluctuate daily, had risen to 99 not long after.

In early October, Amy Gibbs, Doherty’s counterpart for Queens, Long Island and Connecticut, said there were currently 100 openings for pre-career positions in Maine. The agency is continuing to fully authorize overtime to allow employees to work the time necessary to deliver mail, she said.

Doherty said the Postal Service is committed to the “secure and timely delivery” of election-related mail in the leadup to the midterms. He advised that people who are planning to mail in absentee ballots send them at least one week before they are due, which in Maine is Nov. 8.


The Postal Service was unable to provide data related to the volume of mail sent to Maine to be distributed across the state. Nationally, the amount of mail the agency has delivered has steadily declined over the last decade, from nearly 160 billion pieces in 2012 to about 129 billion in 2021.


As delivery problems persist, mail carriers are feeling the backlash.

Mark Seitz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 92, based in Portland, characterized the current staffing issues as major, and it’s a problem that existed even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seitz said that mail carriers are dealing with “a lot of lashing out” from the public right now. “What I want to emphasize is: Listen, we’re trying. We’re there every day, but there’s only so many people that can deliver mail. … We’re working as long and as hard as we can.”

Right now, carriers are working seven days a week, often as much as 80 or 90 hours, Seitz said, and still can’t complete deliveries on their routes.


Seitz offered up a snapshot of shortages across Maine. In Portland, where he estimates that 10 to 12 routes a day don’t get deliveries, more than 20 carriers are needed to deliver the mail. Saco, he said, needs 40 carriers but has only 28. Rockland needs 15 but has only 10.

In Kennebec County, both Augusta and Waterville only have 23 carriers each. Augusta needs 25 to fully staff its routes, and Waterville needs 26.

“The only thing that’s going to fix it, is if we get more people in there,” said Seitz.

When the mail doesn’t arrive at Capital Area Staffing Solutions in Augusta, that’s a problem for Cathy DeMerchant.

DeMerchant is the president and co-owner of the staffing firm on North Belfast Avenue, a main traffic artery in the capital city. Clients of her business are looking for temporary workers or contract-to-hire workers and many pay with checks if they are not able to do it electronically. But if there’s no delivery on that day — one week earlier this year she received mail only one time during the week — even if the check is in the mail, it’s not delivered.

“If we don’t get a check, we’re letting our clients know they are overdue on their payments, when they may have generated the check and sent it timely,” she said. “And obviously, we’re a staffing firm so the money that comes in goes to payroll. We’re always going to pay our people, no matter what, but if we don’t get checks, it’s a drain on finances.”


She’s tried to find out whether other options are available to her, like picking up her mail, but when she calls her local post office, no one answers the phone.

“My father worked for the Postal Service and retired after 42 years,” she said. “I think he would be mortified, mortified at the lack of service.”


What happens in Maine is likely to be affected by what happens outside the state.

In July, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced the Postal Service may cut 50,ooo employees through retirements. The organization currently employs more than 650,000. The proposal is part of consolidating mail processing facilities, which is part of DeJoy’s decade-long plan to stabilize the Postal Service.

At the same time, the Postal Service’s two main unions, including the letter carriers’ union, are pressing for more hiring.


Seitz said the Postal Service needs to streamline its hiring practices, which can take three to four months to complete.

“If you need work, you need it now — not in four months,” he said.

A decade ago, the Postal Service maintained a register of applicants, but that’s not the case anymore. If an applicant isn’t hired for one job, they don’t remain in the system to be considered for other jobs.

Seitz sees the Postal Service’s hiring process is “antiquated.” As a solution to chronic shortage of staff, he suggests offering part-time flexible, or PTF, mail carrier positions at all post offices statewide.

Part-time flexible carriers are paid an hourly wage to fill in for full-time employees where needed. Those PTF workers are paid $3 more per hour than a salaried “career carrier” and get full benefits immediately upon hiring.

To offer new hires that competitive rate, a postal office needs to petition the national Postal Service to be designated as a “hotspot.” Seitz said he has been doing that on behalf of understaffed and overworked postal offices statewide for six or seven months.


Nine postal offices in Maine, including one in Lewiston, are now solely staffed with carriers that are part-time flexible, according to Seitz, but the Postal Service has been slow to offer the rate more widely.

Seitz hopes that in the future, the Postal Service will do away with the career carrier position altogether and only hire PTF workers going forward. This will be at the center of negotiations when the union’s national contract ends in May.


Buotte orders the roaches for her daughter’s bearded dragon, named Dragon, that eats only live roaches. The family has also recently added a chameleon named Jolene to its pets. It eats hornworms that also have to be delivered because they are not available locally.

Because they are live insects, they are subject to the vagaries of the weather, and they can survive only so long without being fed themselves. The supplier replaced one shipment for free.

In a pinch, she said, she can feed the lizards dry food, but it is not the best nutritional option, and they don’t typically eat a lot of it. She could also get wild bugs, but there’s no way to tell whether the insects have been exposed to pesticides.


“I am assuming (the supplier) gets insurance, but I also feel like the Post Office should be reimbursing them because they are unable to follow the instructions on the box,” she said.

She said she can find other options, but they are likely to cost her more.

“We knew there would be an issue getting them locally,” she said, “but I was really hoping there wouldn’t be this much of an issue getting them through the mail.”

Morning Sentinel staff writer Zara Norman contributed to this report. 

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