By Igor Studenkov
Concerns about the United States Postal Service (USPS), its future, and its ability to deliver mail likely will not subside soon.
Even before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck, USPS already was dealing with billions of dollars in debt a Republican Congress forced it to take on by saddling it with unique pension obligation requirements. The pandemic deepened losses as USPS handled less regular mail and more packages. At the same time, concerns that polling places could become hotbeds of coronavirus infections led most states to put new emphasis on voting by mail. President Donald Trump denounced the move, insisting it made the ballots easier to tamper with—even as he, his family, and some of his staff requested mail-in ballots for themselves, and vote by mail has not been marked with fraud over the years.
On May 6, USPS’s board of governors selected Louis DeJoy, a major Republican donor and a Trump associate, as postmaster general. U.S. presidents appoint board members for seven-year terms and, at the time of DeJoy’s appointment, all board members were Trump appointees.
When DeJoy assumed his duties June 16, he began making controversial changes. He banned overtime and extra trips needed to deliver mail and ordered workers to remove mail sorting machines across the country and mail collection boxes in several states. After widespread reports of slowed mail and rising concerns that DeJoy deployed such measures to hurt mail-in voting, he promised to halt changes until after the election. Such promises remain empty, however, as he has not restored mail sorting machines and collection boxes already deactivated or removed as of this writing.
USPS traces its roots to America’s early history and enjoys the distinction of being among a handful of federal government agencies authorized by the United States Constitution. The law requires USPS to deliver letters and packages to every person living in the U.S. and charge everyone the same rates, regardless of location. More than 90% of all Americans have a positive view of the postal service.
In October 2006, under the George W. Bush administration, the Republican-led U.S. Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which, most notably, required USPS to have enough money to cover all employee health and retirement benefits for the next 50 years—a requirement to which no other company or government agency is subject. It left the agency billions of dollars in debt.
House tries to help
On Feb. 5, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 309-106 to pass the USPS Fairness Act, which removed the requirement and forgave the debt the postal service already owned. The measure was passed with bipartisan support, with 222 Democrats and 87 Republicans voting in favor. The U.S. Senate has yet to take up the act, however.
When lawmakers negotiated the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Democrats pushed to provide $13 billion in emergency funding for USPS, but after Trump threatened to veto the act if it included any direct funding for the USPS, Congress and the White House agreed to make it a $10 billion loan instead. On Aug. 22, the House passed a bill to allocate $25 billion to the US Postal Service and ban operational changes that have slowed mail service around the country. The bill then went to the Senate, controlled by Republicans opposed to the postal service.
Keith Richardson serves as president of American Postal Workers Union (APWU) Chicago Local 1, which represents Chicago area USPS clerks, drivers, and maintenance and support service staff. He said that, even before the pandemic, many post offices already had been dealing with staffing shortages, which the pandemic made worse.
“We’re humans like everyone else,” Richardson said, explaining that, with workers getting sick, remaining employees had to do the jobs of two to three workers, which affected everything from deliveries to processing. With schools closed and daycare options limited, many employees who remained had to take time off, putting further strain on the employees who remained.
By June, the effects of DeJoy’s tenure started to become clear as delivery slowed. Also, reports that workers had had to dismantle or deactivate 600 mail sorting machines raised concerns about whether mail-in ballots could be processed in time to count for the election.
Richardson said eliminating overtime worsened the staffing situation. Banning extra travel and taking several Chicago area mail sorting machines offline lengthened delivery times.
“It lowers morale because postal workers come to work every day to deliver America’s mail,” he said. “It affects letter carriers, it affects the delivery process. When you slow down the mail, it affects the customer in a negative way.”
To the best of his knowledge, disruptions affected all parts of Chicago equally.
In a July 21 statement, DeJoy did not address his measures directly but stated he believed USPS needs to operate “efficiently and effectively” and that he believes overtime and extra travel for mail delivery increased the deficit without improving delivery. He cited a Postal Service Inspector General report that found USPS had “$1.1 billion in mail processing overtime and penalty overtime, $280 million in late and extra transportation, and $2.9 billion in delivery overtime and penalty overtime costs in fiscal year 2019.
“Yet, even after incurring these additional costs, the Postal Service has not seen material improvement in our service performance scores,” DeJoy continued. “While we did not fully agree with all aspects of the report, we did not dispute the fundamental conclusion that we need to redouble our efforts to focus on our plans to improve operational efficiency and to further control overtime expenditures.”
Harming mail-in voting
By late July, USPS warned multiple states it was ending the unofficial practice of treating mail-in ballots as first-class mail, regardless of the actual postage paid. As a result, it might not able to deliver ballots in time to meet the election deadlines.
As public pressure mounted, DeJoy addressed the issue more directly during the Aug. 7 board of governors meeting, arguing he was trying to get USPS to follow existing operational standards.
“By running our operations on time and on schedule, and by not incurring unnecessary overtime or other costs, we will enhance our ability to be sustainable and to be able to continue to provide high quality, affordable service,” DeJoy told the board. “As we implement our operating plans, we will aggressively monitor and quickly address service issues. You can rest assured that we will continually review our operational practices and make adjustments as required to ensure that we operate in an efficient and effective manner.”
Although he did not address sorting machine removals, he defended himself against accusations he was doing Trump’s bidding, saying that while he had a “good relationship with the president of the United States, the notion that I would ever make decisions concerning the Postal Service at the direction of the president, or anyone else in the administration, is wholly off base.” DeJoy insisted he had no plans to interfere with mail-in ballots.
On Aug. 13, Trump publicly stated he would not support aid to USPS precisely because it would help mail-in voting.
“Now, they need that money in order to make the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he said. “Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”
On Aug. 18, DeJoy issued a statement saying he would halt changes until after the election and that “retail hours at post offices will not change, mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are, no mail processing facilities will be closed, and overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed.”
USPS, however, made no move to restore the significant number of mailboxes and mail sorting machines already removed. Under DeJoy’s orders, workers already have taken away 95% of the sorting machines originally slated for removal. Machines from a Pennsylvania facility remain sitting in the parking lot, with no plans to put them back.
Richardson called DJoy’s announcement “a step in the right direction” but “I don’t think that’s enough. The damage has already been done. The changes implemented by the postmaster general have already impacted the county. They already removed sorting machines, they already removed some of the letter boxes.”
On the same day DeJoy made his announcement, attorneys general from 14 states, including Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, filed a lawsuit alleging the postmaster general did not have the authority to make such sweeping changes under existing laws. Raoul said the fact that DeJoy paused those changes did not impress him.
“Make no mistake, a statement issued in a press release is inadequate in providing assurance to the millions of Americans relying on the Postal Service that he will not reverse course—again,” Raoul stated. “I am filing this lawsuit to ensure that the postmaster general can be held accountable to a Federal court. The right to vote is too important to be contingent on a statement in a press release.”
The APWU, the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 11, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union 306 of the Chicago Federation of Labor on Aug. 21 held a news conference at the post office at 4601 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
In a statement, the unions noted some 30,000 postal workers in the area “deliver millions of pieces of mail and packages efficiently and reliably each day. They deliver life-saving medicines, critical supplies, and during every election, they deliver ballots. They call the neighborhoods and communities that they serve home. For many people of color, young people, and veterans, a union job at the postal service is a path to the middle class. APWU, NALC, NPMHU, CFL and others demand an end to the attacks on postal workers.”
State Representative Kam Buckner (D-26th) attended the news conference and told Gazette Chicago, “It is indefensible and embarrassing what the Trump Administration is doing to our country through the president’s war on the United States Postal Service. Americans rely on the services of the post office now more than ever. Their daily delivery of more than 470 million pieces of mail is no small feat. The women and men who perform these duties are essential front line workers who have kept us connected to each other and the world during this pandemic. We are urging Congress to fight for the 500,000 employees of the post office, our constitutional rights, and the very essence of our democracy.”
As Congress and White House officials continue to discuss the next stimulus package, Richardson said he wants to see an actual grant rather than more debt.
“The airline industry received relief, you already helped their employees, and the postal industry shouldn’t be any different,” he said. “So, we need the relief in the stimulus package.”
For Richardson, the upcoming election is crucial to USPS’s future.
“What would help the postal service is electing a new president,” he said. “Two, we have to make sure that we have a postmaster general and the board of governors who actually support the service and its mission—to deliver to every address in the country.”
Richardson said he wasn’t too worried about voting by mail.
“I’m confident that the employees in the City of Chicago and postal employees all over the country are going to rise to the occasion, like we always do,” he said. “Voting by mail is safe. We’re going to treat it as priority; don’t worry about the postal service not being able to deliver the mail.”
Whatever happens, USPS workers will do everything they can to fulfill their mission.
“As postal employees, we’re proud, we’re reliable, we’re dependable,” Richardson said. “As postal workers, we do everything we can to deliver the first-class postal service our customers deserve. With the pandemic and everything else, it has been a struggle, but we’re doing the best we can.”
To contact Buckner’s office, call (773) 924-1755. To contact Richardson’s office, call (312) 344-0039. For the USPS board of governors, log on to https://about.usps.com/who/leadership/board-governors/. For Senator Richard Durbin’s office, call (312) 353-4952. For Senator Tammy Duckworth’s office, call (312) 886-3506.