Savoonga’s only postal worker resigned mid-November, and now the St. Lawrence Island community of 700 has been without regular postal service for almost two weeks. There’s no indication of when a permanent postmaster will be hired to fill the vacancy.
Savoonga resident Delbert Pungowiyi said he’s never seen their post office shut down for so long. Community members are waiting for their social security checks, food stamps, and money to pay their bills—not to mention medication and other online orders.
“We’re having a hard enough time right now with the elders’ checks, too, that are desperately needed for groceries and paying our bills,” said Pungowiyi. “So we’re really in a hard spot right now. The whole community is really suffering.”
And without checks arriving by mail, he said the community is strapped for cash—prompting many to use debit cards, if possible, to make necessary purchases at the local store.
“The cash flow is really going down at the store and our grocery supplies…” said Pungowiyi. “There’s a real big concern right now for cash flow.”
However, Dawn Peppinger, marketing manager for the U.S. Postal Service in Alaska, said USPS is doing its best to provide temporary relief. Last Monday through Saturday, they flew in a postmaster from Barrow to distribute all the packages that were piling up. And barring any weather delays, Peppinger said a postmaster from Teller was scheduled to fly in Wednesday afternoon to work at the Savoonga office for another week and a half.
Peppinger said the closures can be longer than desired because USPS has to find a postal worker willing to leave their work and family to support another community. It’s ideal, she said, if a community has one or two “postmaster relief” workers, who can step in if the full-time postal worker is out of commission.
“So that any time we have an unexpected absence—you know, someone’s going to get sick, someone’s going to get hurt, or a family member has an issue or something like that causes them to be unable to work that day, then the backup person would be able to fill in for them,” said Peppinger.
The first step, Peppinger said, is getting a couple of postmaster reliefs in each community in rural Alaska. Eventually, they hope to hire a career postal worker for each village, who will have regular hours and benefits. For now, Peppinger said she’s excited that they have a few good applicants for the open “relief” position in Savoonga, whom they’ll interview in the coming weeks.
But Pungowiyi’s biggest concern is that it’s taking so long for the Postal Service to solve what he calls a “preventable problem.”
“What I’m really shocked with is there was no immediate reaction. This was really a perfectly preventable disaster,” said Pungowiyi. “That’s what it’s really come down to: it’s a postal disaster.”
To prevent situations like this in the future, Peppinger encourages anyone interested to apply for postmaster relief positions. You can search open positions online at usps.com/employment. Peppinger said with USPS closing several facilities in the Lower 48 (and reducing some hours in Alaska), some people may apply for open postmaster positions in rural communities. And anyone who works as a postmaster relief would be eligible to apply for vacant career positions.