FedEx has been struggling to keep up with Sitka’s shipping needs over the last month. The corporation says it’s just a temporary service delay and they’re fixing it, but some Sitkans worry they haven’t solved the problem — and in September, it affected deliveries to the Southeast Alaska town of everything from pet food to vaccines.
Cooler, shorter days mean cold and flu season is just around the corner. Trish and Dirk White own Harry Race and White’s Pharmacy in Sitka, and they were eagerly awaiting shipments of COVID boosters, and flu vaccines. Vaccines arrive by plane, usually in a couple of days. One of those shipments was set to arrive via FedEx in mid-September.
“We have about a $4,200 order of high-dose flu vaccine, and we still haven’t gotten it yet. The tracking number says it’s still in Anchorage,” Trish White told KCAW in an interview in late September.
White said the pharmacy received a tracking number from FedEx on Sept. 15. Ten days later, the package still hadn’t arrived. In Southeast Alaska, weather can frequently delay the mail. White says an extra day or two isn’t that unusual but any more than that risks spoiling the vaccines, which are shipped on ice.
But this delay wasn’t due to weather. In mid-September, the FedEx office in Sitka closed for more than a week, with packages piling up and no one to deliver them.
Robin Schmid is one of many Sitkans who orders her pet food online to save money — the food she orders from PetSmart always ships via FedEx.
“So I’d been waiting for this cat food. And I knew that it was in Sitka, I could see that it had been delivered to Sitka, and it was there for over a week,” Schmid said. “And that doesn’t seem like a big deal until you run out of cat food.”
Schmid noticed that other Sitkans were waiting on packages too. So one morning, when she had some free time, she called FedEx’s customer service line.
“I conveyed to her that we had a real problem, and I threw down my lawyer card,” Schmid said. “I said there are people on this small isolated island who are waiting for their medication, and I said I know you can see that my boxes are coming from PetSmart, and that probably doesn’t mean a lot to you, you know, but there could be people waiting for their pet medication.”
Her greatest concern, however, was for people awaiting prescriptions.
“The real thing is there are people that are diabetic and stuff like that, and their packages are being held there,” she said.
Eventually, the customer service representative passed her along to someone up the ladder — a supervisor in FedEx’s West Coast division. Schmid said the supervisor confirmed what was causing the backlog: the local office was down to just one driver serving the whole island.
“It’s like only having one veterinarian, it makes it really hard,” Schmid said. “One person down, and the whole village is affected.”
The representative told Schmid that they were sending in staff from out of town to open the office. By Sept. 25, FedEx had begun to deliver packages again.
KCAW reached out to FedEx for an interview to confirm the reason for the delayed shipments and whether Sitka’s office was indeed operating with only one driver. FedEx only issued a brief statement, however.
“We appreciate our customers’ patience as contingency plans are implemented to address a temporary service delay involving our location on Airport Road in Sitka,” the statement said. “We are working to restore service levels as quickly as possible and apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”
But whether it’s a temporary service delay or chronic understaffing remains unclear. Until last year, FedEx operated two services in Sitka: FedEx Express and FedEx Ground, which is outsourced, meaning FedEx pays contractors to deliver those packages. But not anymore. In 2022, Fedex eliminated FedEx Ground pickups and deliveries in Alaska in an effort to cut costs.
Elias Erickson is a former delivery driver who worked for Lickity Split Logistics, the company that operated FedEx Ground in Sitka until last year.
“It’s a fun job, because you get to make friends with all the local dogs, and everybody has so many cute dogs,” Erickson said. “I certainly miss that.”
While he liked the job, he said it was far from easy. Drivers work long hours, and it’s physically demanding, not to mention it requires a tremendous amount of organization to deliver hundreds of packages efficiently every day. And Southeast weather means drivers can go a few days without seeing any packages, then three days’ worth of packages arrive on the plane.
“You’re expected to deliver all the packages that are put on your plate,” Erickson said. “And if you don’t, then that just means you’re gonna have more the next day…during certain times of the year, that can certainly become overwhelming at times.”
Erickson said retaining drivers was a routine problem.
“If you’re constantly hiring new employees, and you’re having new folks show up, that’s just going to mean longer delivery times, because it takes a while to get to know your route, and to become quick at that route,” he said.
Erickson couldn’t speak to the current issues with FedEx’s delayed deliveries, but he said it’s possible that eliminating FedEx Ground has ratcheted up pressure on the remaining workers, and might be contributing to the problem.
“The decisions that maybe FedEx made on a corporate level, maybe weren’t fully thought through as far as how they would be implemented and what that would look like in a rural context, such as ours,” he said. “And I think ultimately, FedEx might have shot themselves in the foot in that respect in, and cost themselves some efficiency and some effectiveness in their operation here.”
Erickson estimates that when he worked as a contractor for FedEx Ground, there were three full-time drivers and one part-time driver working for FedEx Express.
Whether FedEx has adequately addressed staffing at Sitka’s office in the long-run remains to be seen, but for now, drivers are on the road playing catch-up. Eventually Robin Schmid’s cat food and Trish White’s vaccine shipment showed up, though some of the vaccines may have been compromised due to the delay. But White was relieved that a separate shipment arrived on time, and ice cold.
“I’m thrilled I got a tracking number last end of last week for an even bigger shipment, like three times that amount. And it arrived today safely,” White said. “We saw the FedEx truck. It was like Christmas.”
KCAW was unable to independently confirm how many full-time drivers are currently employed in Sitka. But several Sitkans KCAW spoke to, including White, mentioned an unidentified driver they’ve noticed going above and beyond amid the delays.
White said the driver is “incredible” and “kind of a champion in my book.”