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Customers and postal workers see online customs forms as a glitch-filled failure

Military postal clerks Staff Sgt. Kaela Roberts and Senior Airman Ronnie Crawford work the finance window at the Ramstein Northside Post Office at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. Postal clerks are spending extra time inputting custom forms manually as the U.S. Postal Service?s new electronic customs form system has been riddled with problems.

JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES

By JENNIFER H. SVAN AND NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 16, 2020

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Online postal customs forms that were trumpeted as an innovation that would slash the time customers spend in line at the post office have instead proven to be a headache for customers and postal workers at U.S. military bases overseas.

Many customers have struggled to complete the new, glitch-filled electronic forms, and military postal clerks are having to input data on the forms manually at the post office, leading to longer wait times for customers and longer working hours for the clerks.

The problem, said military postal workers in Germany and Italy, is with the U.S. Postal Service website where customers try to fill out the new customs declaration form.

“It’s not user-friendly at all,” said Senior Airman Ronnie Crawford, a postal clerk at the Northside Post Office on Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Forms have been kicked back if “road” or “street” are abbreviated, Crawford said.

Some customers who try to pay online have had their transactions blocked “because it flags that they’re overseas,” he said.

Sometimes, the system doesn’t recognize a U.S. postal address, said Master Sgt. D’Andre Broderick, the Northside post office postmaster.

And “it doesn’t like math,” Crawford said. When customers fill in how many items are in a parcel and what the total weight of all those items is, the system “multiplies the quantity by the total weight,” he explained.

Kristin Gonzales, an Air Force spouse at Ramstein, came up against one of the system’s glitches when she tried to complete a form at home for a flat-rate box to the United States.

Because she didn’t have a scale, she estimated a pound each for the candy, handmade masks and other items she was sending.

“I put four pounds and it still wouldn’t take it,” she said.

The problems have not only frustrated customers but have also strained overseas military post offices already dealing with changes and delays caused by the coronavirus, increased volume for postal voting, and now the beginning of holiday mail traffic.

When the switch was made in September from handwritten to electronic customs forms, customers were told they could set up an account on the Postal Service website and complete the customs form from any computer — not just the ones set up in post offices for that purpose.

But that has not been the case and postal clerks in Germany and Italy say they’ve had to input the required information — address, contents, weight, dimensions and value of what’s in the parcel.

One customer with five boxes at Vicenza recently spent more than an hour inside the post office as a clerk struggled to complete the online form.

Manually filling in customs forms was supposed to be a last resort once the online forms were introduced Sept. 3.

Mark Heeter, a spokesman for Installation Management Command-Europe, said the command was aware of the problem but didn’t have a concrete solution to fix it.

“We recognize how critical mail service is to our customers, especially as the holiday mail season approaches, and are taking this seriously,” he said in a statement. “We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers and are working to find and implement corrective actions.”

Postal workers have suggested workarounds, including using Chrome or Firefox, and a virtual private network to make online connections appear U.S.-based.

Postal clerks “understand the struggle” and will “continue to do our best to reduce the customer wait time,” Broderick said.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @stripesktown

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com
Twitter: @montgomerynance

A long line forms on Nov. 13, 2020, at the Northside Post Office at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, as customers wait to mail packages. Many customers have been unable to fill out electronic customs forms required since September by the U.S. Postal Service, leading to longer wait times as postal clerks input the information manually.
JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES