BISMARCK — Newspaper business managers and residents of western North Dakota laid out their grievances with the United States Postal Service at a roundtable meeting with representatives from the government agency on Friday, Feb. 21. The mail service has experienced significant delivery issues in the western part of the state since the oil boom brought thousands of new residents to the region over the past decade.
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, acted almost as an intermediary between the two parties, suggesting potential remedies to the problems brought forward by the disgruntled customers.
Both the newspaper representatives and the two residents, from Bismarck and Minot, respectively, expressed frustration at the Bismarck meeting over chronically late or undelivered mail and a perceived inability to speak with a local contact at the agency about the problem.
Neal Shipman, the owner and editor of the McKenzie County Farmer newspaper in Watford City, said late deliveries of the weekly publication and the lack of sufficient explanations hurt his bottom line, as advertisers have stopped coming back. Shipman said he understands the service may occasionally have issues delivering the paper on time, but he noted there's often a lack of communication when problems arise and he has nothing to tell his upset customers.
"Communication is key. We are not your biggest customers by an stretch of the imagination, but we're customers. Keep us informed of the changes that (USPS) is making," Shipman said. "When your business customers cannot get a response... there's a problem."
Shipman mentioned that the issues with delayed delivery have subsided in the past three weeks.
The mail service's Dakotas District Manager, Marc Kersey, said the agency has recently done some training with employees and tried to use feedback from Shipman and others to focus on their complaints. He also said the agency would work to ensure customers can speak to a local employee when delivery issues arise.
Hoeven agreed that the agency should have someone answering the phone locally to maintain productive lines of communication.
Other newspapers in the western North Dakota have experienced even starker delivery issues.
In December, employees of The Dickinson Press found bundles of unopened newspapers and pieces of mail in dumpsters behind the Dickinson post office, prompting hundreds of social media comments about inconsistent mail delivery in the area.
The Postal Service said at the time it was investigating a number of irregularities related to mail delivery.
Daniel Walock, the circulation director for Forum Communications Co., said the incident in Dickinson was likely the result of labor issue and may require better job training.
"What concerns me is the fact that those carriers — I know there were some removed — they didn't take pride in their work. They didn't understand how this impacts people," Walock said.
Two properties of Forum Communications, the Press and the Jamestown Sun, recently began using the Postal Service to deliver newspapers instead of company-employed carriers, Walock said.
Bismarck resident Bruce Rittel said his neighborhood in the northwest part of the city constantly suffers from mail delivery problems. Rittel said the issue boils down to poor customer service from the carriers, which in his neighborhood, are outside contractors.
Rittel said mail started being delivered to the wrong houses about three years ago, but he said he hasn't received a straight answer on how the problem was being resolved. The annoyed customer said he's missed out on plenty of deliveries, including an $18,000 medical bill.
The agency is undertaking changes that it hopes will resolve some of the issues. It opened a new facility for carriers in Bismarck last week that will have them working separately from plant operations. The old arrangement, which had both sectors working in the same facility was too tight and could not accommodate the increased volume of mail resulting from the population boom, Kersey said.
The agency is also working to expand the Bismarck plant, which handles all mail for western North Dakota, by early October. Kersey said separating the operations and expanding the plant will increase efficiency. Hoeven said the parties should try to meet again after the logistical changes have been made.
Kersey said customers experiencing delivery issues should call the national customer service number at 1-800-ASK-USPS. He also encouraged customers to keep giving feedback, so the agency can make improvements.
Editor's note: Forum News Service is part of the Forum Communications Co. network.