There are school uniforms, medications, gifts from family, and business supplies. The list goes on of online orders and packages stuck in limbo somewhere between Cayman’s courier mail services and Customs and Border Control.
Meanwhile, disgruntled residents continue to queue at customer service desks, wait for an email reply or remain on hold on phone lines, all to no avail, in search of items often collecting dust in storage.
“I ordered online two months ago and shipped through UPS and I’m still waiting for my package,” one customer said in a written comment to the Cayman Compass.
“My mother-in-law paid $200 to expedite ship something that took a month to ultimately be delivered,” wrote another.
The reasons for package delays and mail confusion in Cayman are myriad and, in large part, come down to the ripple effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
An increase in online shopping has created record-breaking import statistics for Cayman. In August, CBC Deputy Director Kevin Walton said 23,000 items were logged in the online import system, beating the 22,000 items from July.
But the increase in personal and home shopping isn’t the issue, Walton said, explaining that CBC has repurposed staff to its import department to handle the surge.
Instead, he said most of the issues arise from the courier services, lack of compliance with CBC procedures and, in the case of UPS, outstanding bills owed to government. Shoppers must also comply with CBC’s bureaucracy that requires even small shipments, like personal items, to arrive through an officially declared agent.
Of Cayman’s more than 8,000 importers, Walton said the islands’ courier services attract a majority of public ire.
“Ninety-nine percent of the complaints that we get each week, which could be up to four to five complaints, we have investigated and we have found it’s not CBC’s fault,” Walton said.
“Our objective is to release your goods within one business day.”
So, where are Cayman’s lost packages? Walton broke down several reasons customers may be experiencing frustrations.
The first mail issue in Cayman comes down to the jurisdiction’s continued border closure, which Premier Alden McLaughlin addressed at a recent COVID-19 press conference. The previous transporter for the US Postal Service – American Airlines – is not currently permitted to enter Cayman. Negotiations are ongoing with Cayman Airways to re-establish service.
In the meantime, the public is relying increasingly on courier services to fill the void.
“Prior to the closure of Cayman’s borders to control COVID-19, the United States Postal Service had contracted American Airlines to transport its mail to Cayman. Of course, AA is not currently authorised to fly into Cayman, so an alternative has had to be explored,” McLaughlin said.
“The United States Postal Service, the Cayman Islands Government and Cayman Airways are in negotiations and, I think, close to concluding an agreement to allow Cayman Airways to transport United States Postal Service mail to and from the Cayman Islands.”
Airport runway works
With little air traffic flowing through Cayman, construction works at Owen Roberts International Airport have been accelerated. These works have limited the hours in which daily courier mail flights are able to land on island, Walton said.
“Because the airports were closed for expansion of the runway, the courier flights and the cargo flights could only land certain times of day,” he said.
Currently, courier mail planes typically arrive in Grand Cayman around 4pm and leave by 6pm.
No agent declared
Even for imports of small items, like personal shopping, CBC now requires customers to officially establish a shipping agent.
“We can’t allow someone to carry goods on your behalf without you authorising it,” Walton said.
To authorise a company like DHL or FedEx to handle personal mail, customers must fill out an agent authorisation form from the CBC website, www.cbc.gov.ky.
That form should be turned in to the courier service with a copy of the customer’s driver’s licence. Those documents should then be submitted by the courier to CBC.
“The couriers have been having a challenge in getting persons to cooperate and do that,” Walton said.
Another requirement for CBC to release packages is that they include an invoice. This applies to all items – even gifts.
More than 40% of imports shipped through courier services, however, have arrived without an invoice, Walton said.
The onus to provide an invoice to the courier falls on the customer.
“It’s a challenge because persons are not cooperating with [the couriers] or not providing invoices to them and that causes another slowdown,” Walton said.
“If the couriers don’t have the invoice, they cannot provide the necessary declaration to CBC.”
When an item is ordered online, Walton said shoppers should be proactive in reaching out to their courier service and providing them with the invoice.
In the case of UPS, packages have not been released by CBC due to non-payment of fees. CBC issued a public notice about the matter in July but, as Walton explained, the problem is ongoing.
“They’re not keeping up with their payments so we can’t release the goods,” Walton said. But even if a new shipment is paid for and the items are released, “the goods remain stored in our warehouses”, he added, because of the non-payment of outstanding fees.
Until UPS clears its debt with CBC, packages ordered through them will be held by Customs.
Walton warned that after seven days, items left with Customs will begin to accrue storage fees. After 30 days, they will be transferred to another warehouse and, after three months, the items could be put up for auction.
Customs has been placing pressure on companies to remove items from its facilities, he added.
“Within the next week you should see improvement in the delivery of goods from the couriers, but we are mindful the Christmas season is coming up,” he said.
To verify if a courier has submitted an item to Customs, Walton said customers should request a declaration number. This number is used for tracking within Customs.
“If they can’t provide you with a declaration number, that means they have not submitted your declaration to Customs as yet,” Walton said.
The Compass was not able to get comments on these issues from the islands’ major courier services, UPS, DHL and FedEx. At UPS, an employee said the manager was too busy attending to incoming complaints to take a call from media. At DHL, a customer service representative answered the phone but was unable to connect to a manager. At FedEx, the publicly listed telephones were out of service.
The Compass ran an online poll asking people about their experiences with importing items onto the island. Of the 530 people who responded within 24 hours of the poll going live, 86% (457 individuals) said they were not satisifed with the turnaround time for their goods to clear Customs.