ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - No Christmas packages, no Permanent Fund Dividend checks, and no cash.
That’s what the community of White Mountain is facing after losing its postal service employee about two months ago, according to several community members.
“It's a strain on the people in the community, not being able to pick up a check at the post office or pick up groceries that you ordered that normally come through the post office,” said White Mountain Mayor Dan Harrelson.
Harrelson said that many residents in White Mountain and other villages rely on Amazon Prime for deliveries of many groceries that they don’t pick up at the store, which for many products is significantly more expensive.
“We've been out of dog food for a week, a bag I paid $30 or $40 for off of Amazon. If I buy it at the local store it's like $85, so it makes it hard on folks,” said Harrelson.
While the village store is able to receive bypass mail, which can be delivered directly to the business without having to go through the post office, residents have to rely on the post office hours for both picking up and sending mail.
Harrelson says he’s been working to bring relief workers from Nome and other villages to stop the backlog. At one point, it had gotten so bad that the post office was filled “from floor to ceiling” with packages and paper mail, but a couple of weeks ago a couple of workers came in to help distribute mail. It reduced the backlog but wasn’t a permanent solution.
And it’s been particularly difficult for residents on fixed incomes, many of whom don’t have electronic bank accounts.
“The elders, they're the ones that are most affected by this and a lot of them depend on the PFD and it's some of their only income,” said Amy Titus, the City Administrator for White Mountain.
Residents who rely on money orders are unable to get those orders in the mail, leaving them without a way to pay.
Titus said frustration has driven her and other community members to start calling the post office demanding answers as to why a job that has been vacant hasn’t been filled, but answers are hard to get.
“They keep giving me different reasons why it's not open. One is that we still have a postmaster, but they did quit, and she's still in the system, so the job can't be posted,” said Titus, “I guess she's still listed as the postal person under their system but she's not really.”
Others have been told that there simply were no applicants.
“We've heard from the postal service that they don't have any applicants, but we know that there's people that have applied,” said mayor Harrelson.
He said that despite the good pay of a postal service job, he’s heard of requirements that discourage folks who have lived their whole lives in a village from applying.
“I know there was one young lady who was interested in applying and she was told that she has to go to Anchorage for like two weeks training and stuff and she's a little bit reluctant to go to Anchorage on her own to go through the training,” said Harrelson.
The postal service wrote in an email to KTUU that it is actively working on finding a permanent worker for White Mountain for the limited hours that have been in effect since Oct. 30, but that finding a suitable employee has been difficult.
Brian Sperry, corporate communications director for the western region of the U.S. Postal Service wrote that one person who was recently hired quit before starting the job. Sperry said that the postal service has been working with the White Mountain Tribal Council in joint efforts for local recruitment, but has so far been unsuccessful.
He acknowledged that there were difficulties in filling positions in rural Alaska. Of the 22 Alaska jobs listed on the USPS website on Tuesday, only three are in the urban areas of Anchorage or Wasilla. The White Mountain job is currently not one of them, though Sperry said it will be reposted later this week.
"Housing can be sparse and very expensive, the cost of moving, the cost of living, difficulties getting in and out of small, rural Alaska all adds to the challenges of hiring," wrote Sperry.
But the postal service says it is looking at temporary relief. Sperry said that as soon as Wednesday, weather-permitting, a postal service employee may be able to come in from another office and open. That could happen once a week until the position is filled.
But despite hope that the situation could improve shortly, residents can’t help but feel frustrated with promises from the postal service.
“They've been saying a bunch of stuff but everybody's been waiting since last month,” said Titus.
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