PORTLAND, Maine -- Last year's holiday season -- with sick and quarantined workers, a flood of packages from shoppers loath to set foot in stores and last-minute dumps of packages from overwhelmed private shippers -- was far from the most wonderful time of the year for the U.S. Postal Service.
Postal workers, who recall all of the packages and letters that piled up in distribution hubs, say they are better prepared this year as they gear up for another pandemic crunch, even though low product inventories, and port and supply chain disruptions are creating new uncertainty about getting gifts delivered on time.
Workers have already seen a surge in holiday packages, which began several weeks ago.
"A lot of the workers are saying, 'Oh no. Here we go again,'" said Scott Adams, local president of the American Postal Workers Union in Portland.
The Postal Service and private shippers UPS and FedEx are increasing their hiring -- employing about 230,000 temporary workers -- and taking other steps to ensure they don't become overwhelmed this year.
Nearly 3.4 billion parcels are expected to crisscross the country this holiday season, representing an estimated increase of about 400 million compared with last year, said Satish Jindel, from Pennsylvania-based ShipMatrix, which analyzes shipping package data.
When cards and letters are included, the Postal Service says it will be delivering more than 12 billion items.
"The pandemic is still here. The supply chain is a challenge that's going to impact how people shop and how products move," said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents more than 200,000 postal workers.
This year the Postal Service, UPS and FedEx are seeing several trends that could work in their favor, Jindel said.
More people are shopping in stores as compared with last year, and people have been placing online orders earlier because they're keenly aware of supply chain problems, Jindel said. Also, with workers returning to offices, there are fewer office supply shipments being sent to homes, he said.
Most importantly, the shippers are adapting after their rough-and-tumble experience last year, he said.
U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who faced withering criticism last year, has reported on-time improvements and reduced operating losses this month, and says the service is ready.
"We are ready, so send us your packages and your mail," he said.
A year ago, more than one-third of Postal Service first-class mail didn't arrive in time for Christmas.
Tractor-trailers stuffed with mail were left idling outside some postal-sorting facilities. Packages and letters piled up in distribution hubs. Delays grew by days, and then weeks, in many instances.
Two things were painfully obvious. More workers and more space were needed.
To get a handle on the volume, the Postal Service is transitioning more than 30,000 non-career employees to the ranks of career employees, hiring 40,000 seasonal workers and leasing extra space at more than 100 locations to ensure there's room for parcels.
The Postal Service installed more than 100 new package sorting machines as of early November, part of $40 billion in planned investments over 10 years.
Also, more than 50 package systems capable of sorting large parcels are being deployed.
Combined, these efforts expand capacity by an additional 4.5 million packages per day, officials said.
UPS, for its part, is hiring more than 100,000 seasonal employees across the country, and continues to add aircraft and automation. It expects nearly 90% of its packages to flow through automated facilities by year's end.
FedEx is boosting its nationwide workforce by 90,000 across its operating companies. Most of the new workers are expected to remain after the holidays, the company said.
Despite all of the extra workers, the shippers agree that this is not the year for shoppers to procrastinate.
"Complete your holiday shopping as soon as possible," said Jim Mayer, spokesperson for UPS, and get it in the shipping pipeline.