The Secret of the Missing Mail

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Are you missing some letters or parcels? Someone owes you money perhaps, and insists your cheque is in the mail, but the darned thing never turns up?

If your debtor lives in the United States and you live in Nova Scotia, there’s a good chance he might be telling the truth.

Fear of anthrax has slowed postal service in the United States, where two postal workers died and several fell ill after handling booby-trapped mail. Some U.S. postal sorting stations have been closed for testing and decontamination, a process that takes up to four days, and slows deliveries further.

All this is well known. What’s not so well known are the goings on at Canada Post’s Almon Street sorting station in Halifax, where mail from the United States stalled for ten days earlier this month.

Halifax is a minor entry point for American mail to Canada. The combined traffic at Almon Street and two other sorting stations in Atlantic Canada amounts to less than 2 per cent of the U.S. mail arriving in Canada.

On October 29, some of the Halifax postal workers assigned to sort that mail exercised their right under the Canada Labour Code to refuse unsafe work. They feared the mail could have passed through contaminated sorting stations in the U.S.

According to Fred Furlong, organizing director for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers Atlantic Region, a local manager decided no one would be forced to sort the worrisome mail, and he made the decision to hold the mail rather than try to find workers who were willing to process it. Marilyn Farley, Canada Post’s Atlantic Region Communications Manager, has a different story. She says the union refused to let the mail be processed at all.

In any case, sorting of U.S. mail entering Halifax directly from the United States ground to a halt on October 29, and didn’t resume until Tuesday, November 6. Then it stopped again, only to resume on Thursday, when the backlog was cleared.

Farley refused to say how much mail piled up while sorting was on hold. Furlong said he’d heard an estimate that 75,000 pieces were affected. That’s out of the 800,000 to 850,000 pieces of mail the Almon Street station handles every day.

One of ten Canadian entry points for U.S. mail, Halifax was the only station where workers declined to sort mail, according to Farley. Only mail arriving directly from the U.S. and addressed to Nova Scotia was affected. Halifax posties continued to handle U.S. Mail arriving from other Canadian centres.

Furlong says the workers wanted assurances they would only receive mail from U.S. stations that had been inspected and decontaminated, a time-consuming process that will not be completed until November 12.

So why didn’t Canada Post let customers know that a large pile of U.S. mail was sitting in Halifax, hostage to the anthrax scare?

Farley says discussions continued throughout the impasse, and a solution constantly seemed just around the corner. As it turned out, ten days dragged by before a final resolution occurred.

Customers who were kept in the dark for a week and a half about their missing mail can be forgiven for suspecting Canada Post was less concerned about timely service than about preventing the job action from spreading to other centres.

It’s not clear what finally changed the posties’ minds. Some combination of continued progress decontaminating U.S. centres, a gradual easing of the general anthrax panic, and assurances that Canada Post was treating the problem seriously eventually persuaded workers to resume sorting.

Workers who didn’t want to handle the suspect mail were assigned to other duties. Sorting took place by hand, not by machines, which by some accounts can propel powder into the air.

The last of the delayed mail cleared the sorting station Thursday, so if your American cousin really did put that cheque in the mail, you should have it by Tuesday at the latest.

Just how long it will take to clear Canada Post’s credibility with customers is a different matter.

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