Worker Voices: The Postal Service Slowdown

The bosses and politicians running the US Postal Service are slowing down the mail. Here's what workers have to say about it.

“I’m sick to my stomach.” “I think it’s discouraging people to vote.” “The guy in charge is basically saying so openly, like, ‘Yeah, we’re just not going to deliver your fucking mail.’”

These are some of the reactions of postal workers to recent changes in how the US Postal Service operates. These workers, already dealing with shortstaffing and hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, say new rules from the bosses and politicians who control the USPS amount to sabotage.

"I see this as a way to undermine the public confidence in the mail service," [Kimberly Karol, a postal clerk in Waterloo, IA] said. "It's not saving costs. We're spending more time trying to implement these policy changes, and it's, in our offices, costing more.”

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Working conditions worsened noticeably when current Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was appointed in May. An anonymous mail carrier talked to the Philadelphia Inquirer about how his workload changed:

He scans the bins and boxes neatly stacked throughout his truck, stamped with the U.S. Postal Service logo. He sighs. Just a year ago, this would be his day’s work. But with twice as many packages and half as many carriers on duty, he has more items to deliver than ever before.

Like many post offices, his has been short-staffed for a while. Then came the coronavirus, and with it, a surge in packages. Then the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, was appointed in June.[…]

“We are being politicized,” the carrier says as he hops over a railing between homes to save time. “I don’t think [DeJoy] actually has a clue what we actually do.”

DeJoy quickly began several new policies that undermined mail delivery. Overtime was banned, though in some places that policy has been reversed to deal with backups, and mail not ready to go out exactly on time each morning had to be left for later or the next day. A Michigan postal worker described the consequences:

The result was entirely predictable, [Roscoe Woods] says.

"Mail began to just pile up and what is a processing facility, it started turning into a warehouse," he says.

Woods says in his opinion, the slowdown has been intentional.

The story was similar for another mail carrier in Minnesota:

Until last month, Kevin Servin worked as a United States Postal Service letter carrier in Buffalo, Minnesota. He left the job after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's cost-cutting measures eliminated overtime.

"It's been ugly," Servin, 31, said of the unrealistic pressures for him and his fellow employees.[…]

Servin said that losing overtime "made the post office such a mess," as workers struggled to do their jobs within a certain timeframe that "just was not achievable."

Stephenson said the mail piles up and is left in the aisles of the sorting offices, requiring workers to squeeze through the machines and office space while also trying to maintain social distancing guidelines in a pandemic.[…]

Once the mail gets dispatched, the carriers face another challenge: with no overtime hours, they can't reach all the houses in their route in time, Stephenson said. That mail gets delayed to the next day. And the delays compound.

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The New Republic spoke with several anonymous mail carriers about how these changes have wreaked havoc on the efficiency of mail delivery and the personal lives of postal workers.

“That overtime pay really helps with $20,000 of daycare every goddamn year,” said one carrier, who pointed out the most damning implication of removing overtime from thousands of carriers across the country. It’s akin to a massive salary cut for countless workers, with little to no warning or preparation.

“It’s completely ridiculous,” said another carrier, who said they are currently working an average of 80 to 90 hours every week to keep up with what is already a backlogged postal floor. “It’s just crazy to me that the guy in charge is basically saying so openly like, ‘Yeah, we’re just not going to deliver your fucking mail. Sorry. If we get to it in eight hours, maybe, but otherwise it’s sitting on the floor until tomorrow or the day after.’”

“I find a letter in my station that I know is on 3 Route and not my route that day, I’m pausing what I’m doing and I’m taking that letter over to the carrier working 3 Route….I do that because I want them to get their mail. And this guy is basically saying ‘No, fuck that, don’t do that; throw it on the floor.’ That’s not how I’ve spent twenty years of my life. That doesn’t sit right with me.”

These new policies have had major impacts on USPS customers, including delays in shipments to sick Americans who rely on timely delivery of medicine for survival. A postal worker in Ohio has witnessed these frightening delays firsthand:

Some days, [Michael] Miller delivers as many as 30 packages of life-saving medication, everything from blood-pressure pills to cholesterol medicine. If mail delivery is reduced, Miller fears what might happen to one of his customers should a prescription runs out.

"Just last week, I was delivering a package and the guy said to me, ‘Oh, thank God, I just took my last pill this morning.’"

And from NPR:

One postal worker, who asked not to be identified because the person was not authorized to speak publicly, told NPR of a pharmaceutical company that had complained of delays in picking up its outgoing shipments.

"I am sick to my stomach," the worker said. "How can the United States Postal Service deny the pickup of outgoing mail for any customer — let alone a pharmaceutical company that is mailing medication?"

But the changes didn’t stop there. Postal Service bosses also ordered the dismantling of mail sorting machines, significantly slowing down work. These machines are being destroyed, dismantled, or thrown in dumpsters rather than just being turned off.

Documents obtained by CNN indicate 671 machines used to organize letters or other pieces of mail are slated for "reduction" in dozens of cities this year. The agency started removing machines in June, according to postal workers.

Postal workers in various locations said machines have been dismantled and that it wasn't immediately clear what the agency was doing with the parts.

Some of these machines have the capacity to sort up to 30,000 mail items and take only two Postal Service workers to run, according two machine technicians CNN spoke with. They estimate it would take about 30 employees over their entire shifts to do that amount of work by hand.

[Kevin] Bentley, [president of a postal workers union covering Kansas and Missouri] said that even though total mail volume is currently down, he didn't understand why the machines were being removed rather than simply turned off and kept in place in case they are needed in the fall, when the Postal Service expects volume to increase with mail-in ballots, campaign materials and other mail.

"The comparison would be that if you have a room in your house that you are not using much anymore, you might turn the light switch off to that room, but you wouldn't call an electrician and have all the wiring removed from that room," he said.

The policy changes and destruction of equipment causing the current mail slowdown have the potential to have a major impact on the 2020 presidential election this November, which will be conducted in large part by mail. Many of the removals of sorting machines have happened in swing states that might vote for either party’s presidential candidate, like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Seven mail-sorting machines were removed from a nearby processing center in West Philadelphia, causing further delays. Now, post offices are being told to open later and close during lunch.

“I have some customers banging on my people’s doors: ‘Open up!’” [Nick] Casselli [president of the Philadelphia postal workers union] said. “I’ve never seen that in my whole 35-year postal career.”

[Daleo Freeman] said further delays had occurred after five mail-sorting machines in a major Cleveland-area distribution center were dismantled in recent days.

In fact, President Trump has said undermining the Postal Service’s ability to process mail ballots in order to prevent Americans from voting by mail is an explicit goal of his, according to the Associated Press:

President Donald Trump frankly acknowledged that he’s starving the U.S. Postal Service of money to make it harder to process an expected surge of mail-in ballots, which he worries could cost him reelection.

In an interview on Fox Business Network, Trump explicitly noted two funding provisions that Democrats are seeking in a relief package that has stalled on Capitol Hill. Without the additional money, he said, the Postal Service won’t have the resources to handle a flood of ballots from voters who are seeking to avoid polling places during the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money,” Trump told host Maria Bartiromo on Thursday. “That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it.”

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And slow deliveries have already impacted smaller elections, disenfranchising thousands of Americans. In Wisconsin,

elections officials continue to have problems with ballots not being delivered to voters. Nearly 700 voters in the cities of Milwaukee and Wauwatosa did not receive ballots they requested in late June for the Aug. 11 primary.

The previously unreported missing deliveries follow April's breakdown when thousands of ballots weren't delivered on time during the state's primary.

And Oregon:

Jamie Partridge, a retired letter carrier who is an organizer for Communities and Postal Workers United, said election-related mail was still being delivered the day after Tuesday’s Portland City Council special election.

“I got a report from at least two letter carriers today that they delivered political mailers (from Loretta Smith) today, and at least one letter carrier reported delivering ballots today,” Partridge said Wednesday.

And in Michigan, delays may already have changed the results of an election:

In Sterling Heights, a large suburb north of Detroit, 165 mail ballots postmarked on July 30 arrived six days after the August 4 election. Though a local race was decided by just 87 votes, the ballots could not be counted under a Michigan law requiring they arrive at local election offices or be in drop boxes by 8 pm on Election Day.

The delays have gotten so bad that Congress will return from summer vacation, planning a vote on a USPS funding package and a bill that would prevent more changes to the postal service before election day, and ordering Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to testify before them next Monday, August 24.