Last month, in the midst of an apparent postal service crisis, pop diva Cher tweeted to her 3.8 million Twitter followers: “Can ppl volunteer at post office!?” followed by the more emphatic: “NO, IM NO KIDDING…COULD I VOLUNTEER AT MY POST OFFICE!?” An hour later, she reported that she’d called to ask two post offices in Malibu (“Hi This is Cher Do U Accept volunteers”) to which they told her: “no.”
Cher may have gotten a different answer had she called the Assistance League Post Office in San Pedro, about 50 miles southeast, also in Los Angeles County. It’s the site of what is thought to be the only all-volunteer-run post office in the United States.
The Assistance League Post Office functions like an ordinary post office, performing regular duties such as offering stamps, priority mail, tracking, and customs processing, but it’s technically a contract postal unit, which is when the USPS outsources some of its retail services to a private business. In this case, the “business” happens to be a nonprofit, the Assistance League, a national group that helps provide a range of charitable services to low-income residents. The local San Pedro chapter funds its community services in part by using a portion of the proceeds it retains from its mail services.
The post office was founded in 1964, when the Assistance League of San Pedro, the first local chapter in the nation, opened it at the suggestion of local merchants to fill a need in a fast-growing town, which contains the Port of Los Angeles and is home to many longshoremen and port workers. At first, the post office was merely a stamp-selling unit via a Dutch door in the Assistance League’s building. In 1990, the post office got its own stand-alone building, connected to the nonprofit’s quarters, and it became a full-service post office.
Today, Gayle Merrick, the post office’s chairman, leads a team of 17 retired women—”with a friendly face and a can-do attitude”—aged between 65 and 87 (the oldest member, Merrick says, is “sharp as a tack and working more than most of us”). They’re made up of former teachers and businesswomen, a college professor, and a doctor. They commit to about three or four full-day volunteer shifts per month.
The volunteers closed the office in the spring due to the coronavirus, to protect the workforce of senior citizens. Los Angeles County has been particularly hard hit, logging a total of more than 240,000 cases, and nearly 6,000 deaths. But they’re itching to get back to work, in the face of a post office crisis and upcoming election that will depend on a smooth-operating postal service. The post office “cut off” the contract while it’s not being used, Merrick says, but she’s confident that “getting it reinstalled is just going to take an email or a phone call.”
“Our customers are a little bit impatient and irate,” says Merrick, on a Zoom call, but adds that the 100 or so customers they’d normally receive each day are using two nearby locations in the meantime, including the Assistance League’s parent post office on nearby Beacon Street. Even in typical times, Merrick’s post office doesn’t ship packages themselves, but scans them before they’re picked up by a USPS mail carrier and takes them to Beacon Street for shipping. But, postal delays have affected the usual routines, and Merrick worries about the current climate. Since the Trump administration installed Louis DeJoy as postmaster general on June 15, the USPS has reported corresponding mail delays, such as a drop in on-time priority mail delivery from 90% to less than 80% between early July and early August. Mail-sorting machines and mailboxes have also been removed across the country.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Merrick sighs. “This seems like such a mess.” But the problems didn’t just start this summer; the USPS reported an initial sharp drop in mail delivery as the pandemic set in and lockdown orders began. In March, before the site closed, a mail carrier reported to Merrick that there’s “mail all over the floor” in the Beacon Street office because it’s not getting picked up regularly enough. “I’m worried about it,” she says, “because we’ve always been taught that cardinal-rule number one at the post office is: get the mail out of the office and down to the mail processing centers.”
Now, having been away from work for months, she’s concerned by the many unknowns. “The mail processing machines, I hope they haven’t pulled [them] out,” she says, of the processing facility in downtown L.A. She hasn’t heard of any local mailboxes being removed, but hasn’t been there to see for herself. “This is really kind of a shock,” she says. “I don’t know how this is all going to pan out.” Merrick takes her federal responsibility seriously. Just like paid postal workers, she and her volunteers take the same oath of office as the U.S. president—solemnly swearing to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” She wants to get back to work as soon as possible to iron out whatever issues she can.
Aside from not being able to provide postal needs to locals, the closed post office means a loss of income from sales that helps fund the San Pedro Assistance League’s work. The Assistance League was founded in 1935 (incidentally, by Anne Banning, the daughter-in-law of Phineas Banning, who founded the Port of Los Angeles), allowing a group of L.A. women to help local people in need. By 2019, the charity had 22,000 volunteers at 120 chapters in 26 states, raising $58 million annually to help their communities primarily through thrift shops, but also low-cost dental centers—and the San Pedro post office.
Without the proceeds, the local chapter is missing out on funding for such local projects as low-cost dental and vision care for children of low-income families; assault survivor kits for victims of rape and assault; a weavers’ club for visually impaired adults; Operation Hug, which sends teddy bears to hospitalized kids; and Operation School Bell, the signature national program that helps to provide new school clothes, supplies, and grooming kits for K-12 children of low-income families. Last year, 331,000 children in the U.S. received their clothing and supplies because of the program. Though there are 350 Assistance League volunteers in San Pedro, the 17 who run the post office are significant contributors. “The post office is the middle of the equation,” Darwin says. “You take that post office out of the equation, and the deliverable is vastly reduced.”
Merrick wants to reopen as soon as city health officials deem it safe, both because of the lost revenue, but also because of the need to help with the election. “I do want to get going by October 1, because I think we need to stamp all of these ballots that come in,” she says, referring to the mail-in ballots for a presidential election in which about half of registered voters plan to vote by mail. That proportion is likely much higher in California, which automatically sends every registered voter a ballot, and where 72% of primary voters this year casted their votes by mail.
Because of delays, the USPS issued a statement recommending that people request and send ballots ahead of time. Though California allows the receipt of ballots 17 days after Election Day, they must still be postmarked on or before November 3. And it’s Merrick’s team that has the power of the postal stamp that certifies when the ballots came in. “We do a lot of those,” she says of past elections, for which the majority of Californians have consistently voted by mail.
While voters stay at home, postal workers are taking the health risks on themselves, illustrating their status as essential workers. “I’m very, very nervous,” Merrick says, “because I feel responsible for my staff, and my husband, in addition to myself.” She’s organized a wealth of precautions for their return, especially important for a narrow, cramped, and poorly ventilated building. She’s installing three office fans, hand sanitizers at every station, and plexiglass screens; volunteers will wear face shields and masks, spray all packages with disinfectant, and wipe down counters after every three or four encounters. When Merrick decides it’s safe to reopen, and assuming the contract resumes, they’ll return to work on a half-day basis to start, and will monitor volunteer health closely.
Surely, onboarding more volunteers would help with the demand. Could this be Cher’s opportunity? It’s too late, Merrick says, for volunteers to sign up in time to help for the election, because each new member has to engage in at least three months of training, for which a “skeleton staff” would be hard-pressed to offer. There’s little choice but for the existing volunteers to simply “adapt and be as flexible as possible.”
If the volunteers provide such valuable resources, why are they still, 56 years later, the only volunteer-run post office in America? Other chapters have inquired about replicating the model, Merrick says, but she felt they didn’t have the time commitment to make it work. Retirees often travel and spend months away from home, which isn’t conducive to running a post office. Still, Matt Zarcufsky, national executive director of the Assistance League, is willing to hear from anyone who wants to step up to help fill a gap in their community—including by setting up a post office. “That’s the spirit upon which our organization was was created,” he says.
But so far, candidates haven’t impressed Merrick. The challenges of 2020 have impressed on her the importance of an open and thriving post office. “The post office needs consistency, it needs a stable staff, and you have to be there in order to run it decently,” she says. “You can’t shut it down for six months, and then come back, and do that repeatedly.”