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How Much Should You Panic Over the U.S. Postal Service?

A scandal-by-scandal breakdown of what’s really gone wrong with the mail.

The headquarters of the United States Postal Service (USPS) is seen in Washington, DC, August 18, 2020. - The United States Postal Service will hold off of on making changes blamed for slowing down mail delivery until after the November election, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Your letters will arrive eventually. SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

Something has gone wrong with the mail—but it’s hard to say what precisely, why exactly, and whether it’s now been fixed. After GOP mega-donor and former logistics executive Louis DeJoy became postmaster general of the U.S. Postal Service in June, reports came flooding in of numerous changes at the agency that have slowed delivery times and limited capacity—sometimes with dangerous consequences for Americans who rely on the mail. Since President Donald Trump has explicitly floated the idea of withholding funding from USPS to discourage mail-in voting, which will be essential for an election held in the middle of a pandemic, Democrats and unions have taken these reforms as evidence that the administration is trying to throttle the agency as a means of cheating in the election. Meanwhile, Republicans and DeJoy are framing the changes as reforms related to the downsizing that’s been happening for years as mail volumes decline. In the first of two congressional grillings, DeJoy on Friday acknowledged a slowdown, but dismissed accusations that his mandates had political motivations. (He’ll be back for another hearing on Monday.)

Because USPS is a vast operation, the accusations of wrongdoing are numerous, dizzying, and span the entire country. This fog has made it easier for the two sides to not only disagree on why there are problems, but on whether there are any problems at all. In order to get a better sense of what’s actually happening—and whether some sort of ill intent may be behind it—we reviewed each allegation, dug up useful data, checked in with experts, and interviewed postal workers to determine how much alarm each of these areas merits. One difficulty for the public has been USPS’s less-than-forthcoming approach during this whole imbroglio—even its apparent walkback of some worrisome measures was hardly a walkback at all. This rundown won’t settle your anxiety over the mail, but it should at least help you focus it.

Has the mail slowed down? 

Yes. And the new postmaster general admits it’s at least partly his fault.

About a month after arriving as USPS, DeJoy announced an “operational pivot” meant to save costs. Postal processing plants often run a bit behind schedule, and traditionally, carriers have dealt with it by either starting their routes a bit late or by making extra trips to deliver all the day’s mail, which can add to overtime and transportation expenses. In July, however, Dejoy decreed in a memo published by the Washington Post that all trucks would have to start departing on schedule, and that extra trips would no longer be allowed, even if it meant some mail had to be left behind on the shop floor or loading dock until the next day. A separate PowerPoint presentation suggested that DeJoy also planned to eliminate overtime, which also threatened to bog down service. Soon, postal workers around the country began to report backlogs of letters and packages, and voicing concerns about how voting could be affected. “I’m actually terrified to see election season under the new procedure,” Lori Cash, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 183, told the Post in a widely shared story. Meanwhile, Americans began to wonder where the heck their mail was.

It turns out, they weren’t imagining things. The nationwide performance figures that USPS usually reports unfortunately only stretch through the end of June, before DeJoy’s big pivot. But USPS data shared at a recent industry presentation shows that, in fact, deliveries suddenly slowed down in July, around the time the changes went into effect. In the Eastern region, the share of first class letters and so-called flat mail, such as catalogs, delivered on time fell from over 91 percent to 79 percent. In subareas like Northern Ohio, it dropped as far as 68 percent.

Declines in first-class mail delivery in the Eastern U.S.
USPS

The on-time rate also fell significantly in the Pacific region, though not quite as steeply.

Declines in first-class mail delivery in the Pacific region of the U.S.
USPS

During Friday’s Senate hearing, DeJoy admitted that his new policies were at least partly at fault. Mail processing plants hadn’t managed to catch up (or “align” as he put it) with the new truck schedule, and as a result “we had some delays.” He said he had expected to fix the problem in a few days, but instead it had stretched on for weeks. “We did not do as great a job as we should have recovering from it,” he said.

How long are these delays? It’s hard to say exactly. In July, the Posts reported backlogs of two days or more. Dave Lewis, president of the mail tracking company SnailWorks, told us that his clients have seen delivery of first-class mail slow down by about a day. But there are anecdotal stories all around the country of mail going out much later—with Americans reporting that they’ve had to wait over a week for things like prescription medications.

DeJoy hasn’t fessed up to all of the accusations against him. He’s denied clamping down on overtime pay, for instance—on Friday, he claimed the agency had spent $700 million on it since he arrived—even though reports from postal workers would seem to suggest otherwise. The Los Angeles Times recently described a postal processing plant that descended into grotesque chaos after workers were cut back to five-day schedules from six, with packages of rotting fruit and dead animals, such as baby chicks that are often sent through the mail, piling up. “The whole attitude now is ‘be back at a certain time and if you don’t have all the mail delivered, then oh well, it’ll go out tomorrow.’ It didn’t use to be like that,” one carrier in Texas told us.

Not all of the recent problems with the mail can be blamed on DeJoy. The coronavirus sickened thousands of postal workers and disrupted service around the country, which caused huge slowdowns in hard-hit areas like New York and Detroit at the height of the pandemic, and may even still be a drag now. DeJoy is also not the first person within the Postal Service to suggest that the agency might be wasting some money because of its truck schedule. Last year, the agency’s inspector general released an audit report finding that late trips had grown by 90 percent between 2014 and 2018, while extra runs had grown by 60 percent, and were likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars per year. In June, shortly before DeJoy was sworn in, the Inspector General reported that, along with associated overtime pay, the sorts of delays cost the agency $410 million in 2019.

But regardless of the rationale, everyone agrees that DeJoy’s tinkering is probably part of why that package you’re waiting on still hasn’t shown up, and has contributed to the national panic about mail-in voting.

Will USPS run out of money before the election?

It will eventually. But it should have enough funding to make it through voting day.

For months now, Democrats in Congress have been seeking an extra $25 billion for the Postal Service, in order to shore up its finances ahead of the election. And earlier this month, Trump seemed to confirm their worst, most conspiratorial-sounding suspicions about his intentions, when he told Fox Business that he was opposed to the money because of his opposition to mail-in voting. “They want $25 billion—billion—for the Post Office,” the president said. “Now they need that money in order to have post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.”

Trump is not the only person to assume the Postal Service would need more money to handle the upcoming election. One of us wrote a whole story based partly on that premise. But experts say that’s probably not the case. Really, it needs a financial lifeline for its long-term survival, but not to count ballots.

Early on in the coronavirus crisis, it looked like the Postal Service might be in imminent trouble. Mail volumes crashed as advertisers and other businesses cut back on marketing, and Megan Brennan, then the postmaster general, warned Congress that the agency could run out of cash before the end of the fiscal year, which wraps up on September 30. With the approval of the USPS Board of Governors, she asked for a $75 billion bailout package, including $25 billion to defray the losses from the pandemic.

But then, Amazon came to the rescue. Thanks to the surge of package deliveries as Americans started doing all of their shopping online, the Postal Service’s finances improved a bit, and by June, it reported that it probably wouldn’t run out of money until some time in 2021 (its latest quarterly report says it could last until August of next year, without extra help). At the end of July, it also came to an agreement with the Trump administration on terms for a $10 billion loan included in the CARES Act, further helping its liquidity situation.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 21: In this screenshot from U.S. Senate's livestream, U.S. Postal Service Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is sworn in for a virtual Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on U.S. Postal Service operations during Covid-19 pandemic August 21, 2020 in Washington, DC.  The USPS is under financial and operational scrutiny ahead of the upcoming November presidential elections, where mail-in voting is set to play a large role given the Covid-19 pandemic.   (Photo by U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee via Getty Images)
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is sworn in for a virtual Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Friday. Handout/Getty Images

What this means is that, realistically, the Postal Service needs financial help for its long term stability, but not to handle the election. Democrats are a little cagey on this right now: When we asked offices in the House and Senate what USPS specifically needed the $25 billion for, they pointed to the request from April and noted the way COVID has generally strained the agency. But outsiders, such as Ronald Stroman, the recently departed deputy postmaster general who is now a senior fellow at the Democracy Fund, are a bit clearer on that point. “I think the good news is that based on the amount of money that the Postal Service has right now, they will not run out of cash by the election,” he said during a recent call with reporters. “But that day is coming. And it is coming soon. And I would say, for planning purposes, given all of the spotlight around the Postal Service, there needs to be funds allocated for the Postal Service to effectively plan and run the organization. But it won’t have an impact, I don’t believe, on the November election.”

During Friday’s Senate hearing, DeJoy said much the same, explaining that while he thought Congress should give the Postal Service money to make up for its losses related to COVID, it had “plenty of cash to operate through the election.”

For the skeptical, it helps to keep in mind that even if 130 million Americans cast ballots by mail—equal to the entire popular vote in 2016—it would still be a blip compared to the more than 400 million items the Postal Service service processes and delivers every single day. It seems like the big risk right now is that, if USPS policies slow down delivery by a few days or more, people who send in ballots near the last minute might miss their state deadlines and not have their votes counted.

Election issues aside, it would probably be nice if Congress could step in and prevent the Postal Service from financially collapsing next year.

Should I worry about post boxes being removed?

This might be benign—but a former postal official thinks it’s fishy.

Local news outlets in New York, Oregon, New Jersey, California, Ohio, and Montana reported over the last week that the Postal Service had been removing collection boxes in their states. After receiving complaints from a number of governors and members of Congress, USPS announced on Sunday it would postpone any removals for 90 days. The agency said the removals were part of routine efforts to curb the number of redundant and unused boxes. Postal Service spokespeople have also said that some of these boxes will be replaced with newer models.

Reports of the removals have come from disparate sources. In some cases, postal workers’ unions have been able to track the number and location of boxes being taken off the streets and indicated that they are contributing to delays. In other cases, residents have told reporters about spotting flatbed trucks hauling boxes away and challenges sending outbound mail. While these local reports are reliable, it’s difficult to determine how widespread or unusual the phenomenon is. Social media has also muddied the waters. A photo that went viral on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit over the weekend shows looming stacks of mailboxes at a plant in Hartford, Wisconsin, which many users took as evidence of voter suppression efforts in the state. Politifact dug into the claims and found that USPS has long had a contract with the Hartford plant to refurbish or destroy old mail boxes. A photo of the plant taken in 2019 shows even higher stacks, so these particular piles of mail receptacles are nothing new.

It’s also worth noting that mail volume has in fact declined over time, which USPS has cited as a reason for these removals. USPS reported that it delivered 77.6 billion pieces of first-class mail in 2010, while there were only 54.9 billion pieces in 2019. USPS has also long removed boxes as a cost-saving measure; the number of boxes in the U.S. declined by 60 percent between 1985 and 2011. DeJoy testified under oath on Friday that the agency has removed around 700 mailboxes since his arrival, but that he was unaware it was happening until it became a national controversy. He also claimed that 35,000 boxes have been removed over the last decade, which works out to an average of 3,500 removals per year.

Yet David Williams, former vice chairman of the USPS board of governors who quit in protest of DeJoy’s unusual hire, testified before the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Thursday that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had requested that the agency remove mailboxes. “The blue boxes were maybe the most interesting of all,” Williams said. “Those were not part of ongoing plans. To my knowledge, as a matter of fact, Secretary Mnuchin wanted that done.” Given that Mnuchin reportedly tried leveraging emergency coronavirus loans to pressure the Post Office to dramatically raise package delivery rates—a particular cause of President Trump —we can’t quite rule out the possibility of something being amiss with the post box removals.

A United States Postal Service (USPS) mailbox stands in front of a post office in Washington, DC, on August 18, 2020. - The US Postal Service said on August 18 it will halt changes blamed for slowing mail delivery until after the November election, changing course in the wake of the political firestorm President Donald Trump ignited when he acknowledged he wanted to undermine the agency. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
Hang in there, little guy. NICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images

Why is my neighborhood post office closing early?

Yeah, this is a little unusual.

Postal unions across the nation have alerted the media about drastic cuts to their retail hours in late July, which USPS described as a measure to reduce costs. The local American Postal Workers Union branch in West Virginia told Vice that 26 post offices were forced to reduce their usual eight-hour days to under four hours. An additional 31 others had to close during lunch hours, which are usually the busiest. The New Jersey branch reported that 10 offices were moving from nine-hour to four-hour days, and another 30 would close during lunch hours. Offices in California, Alaska, Ohio, and Tennessee have similarly had to reduce hours. USPS announced Sunday that retail hours would not be reduced for the time being, but did not clarify whether the agency would undo the changes it had already put in place. It’s unclear how involved DeJoy was in curtailing these hours, but it appears to have been a fairly sudden move. USPS gave locations just three weeks notice before the changes; federal law requires at least 120 days.

What about the sorting machines I read about? Seems pretty bad!

These removals might be disruptive—but it’s not clear this is sketchy.

Last week, Vice reported that USPS was removing and dismantling mail sorting machines in distribution centers around the country without explanation. Postal employees use various machines to handle high volumes of mail, and those machines will be essential to sorting the forthcoming surge of mail-in ballots. Vice was initially able to confirm that at least 19 machines had been decommissioned, but subsequent reports from local news outlets in various different states indicated that the number was likely much higher.

CNN soon obtained internal USPS documents outlining plans to remove 671 machines used for mail sorting in 2020. Nearly 95 percent of those machines were scheduled to be removed by the end of July. While USPS has gotten rid of such machines in the past, it seems that the number of planned removals rose sharply this year, according to the Washington Post: In 2018, the agency decommissioned 125 machines, which accounted for around 3 percent of the total. In 2019, it decommissioned 186 machines, around 5 percent. This year’s 671 machines account for about 13 percent. A May 15 USPS document obtained by Vice, however, suggests that the agency may have been planning to increase the decommissions this year even before DeJoy became postmaster general in June. He testified under oath on Friday that he had been unaware of the machine removals during his tenure until there was an outcry.

DeJoy promised this past Sunday that machines would “remain where they are” at least until after the election. The caveat, again, is that he apparently will not revert changes that have already been implemented. DeJoy testified on Friday that he has no intention of reinstalling the machines because “they are not needed.” USPS headquarters has also reportedly been telling local managers not to reinstall or even plug in machines without permission from higher-ups.

Given how much less mail than usual everyone not named Jeff Bezos is sending right now, it’s not clear whether these decommissions will hurt the Postal Service’s ability to process ballots in November. During the hearing on Thursday, American Postal Workers Union president Mark Dimondstein said he was unsure of exactly how it would impact workers’ abilities to handle high volumes of mail. “We can’t identify exactly yet what it’s going to do to sorting capacity. … I can’t put an exact number on it yet in terms of the impact on mail running through those machines,” he said. However, given the pandemic and the upcoming election, Dimondstein said the timing of such a move seemed particularly ill-advised. Even though USPS should have the capacity to handle a flurry of ballots, taking away the machines would still limit its flexibility in an emergency.

What about those scary letters USPS sent to states about voting? 

This part is complicated, but there was good news Friday.

In yet another extremely on-the-nose development, the Postal Service’s general counsel sent 46 states letters at the end of July warning them that their deadlines for allowing voters to request or send in ballots were unrealistically close to Election Day given how fast the agency could actually deliver the mail, and that as a result their residents were at risk of being disenfranchised.

This was total nightmare fuel for Democrats who have been following this whole saga at home. (You could just imagine DeJoy chortling, “Haha, we told you so” as millions of ballots were voided for arriving too late). But the actual reasons those USPS warnings worried voting rights experts were somewhat subtle, and Friday’s Senate hearing offered some cause for relief.

The warning letters addressed two long-known issues. The first involved the typically dull but suddenly enthralling topic of postage rates. Many states, especially out West, have long sent out ballots as marketing mail, which is cheap and ordinarily takes a while to arrive. But the Postal Service has customarily treated them as if they were First Class mail, which is more expensive and faster. USPS even provides a nifty green election mail logo, so workers can spot ballots quicker in the processing plant and expedite them. Still, postal officials have nagged states for years that they should really shell out for first-class postage, and this time around, under DeJoy, it seemed like the agency might really put its foot down and slow down ballots in states that didn’t pay out for quicker service. “Just because we put an official election mail logo on a piece, it doesn’t automatically upgrade that to an expedited level of service,” Justin Glass, USPS’ director of election mail, said at a meeting in Ohio earlier this month. “That’s not something that the Postal Service can guarantee.” The general counsel’s letters dryly reminded state election officials that if they sent their ballots as marketing mail, it might take a while to get to voters.

The letters also chastised the vast majority of states for their vote-by-mail deadlines. Many states allow their residents to request ballots at essentially the last minute leading up to the election, but require that they be returned by Nov. 3. That obviously doesn’t leave much time for ballots to actually make it back and forth through the mail, and as a result, some people’s votes get disqualified. This is another long-standing issue that USPS has previously warned states about, one which has already caused some problems this year, such as during New York’s debaculous primary, where local officials tried to mail 34,000 ballots one day before the vote. In the letters he sent in July, the Postal Service’s general counsel explained to states that their deadlines created a risk that votes wouldn’t be counted, and warned that “the Postal Service cannot adjust its delivery standards to accommodate the requirements of state election law.”

Again, none of this was totally new—in fact, the general counsel sent a similar, albeit less detailed, letter in May, before DeJoy took over, reminding states about deadline and postage issues. But according to Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at Democracy Fund, the latest letters contained an extremely worrying shift in tone, especially considering everything else going on with the Postal Service. As she explained in the Thursday hearing before the Congressional Progressive Caucus, USPS used to beg states to get their act together while promising to “move mountains” in order to get ballots to voters in time. Now, their message was more that election officials would get what they paid for.

But in the end, the Postal Service may not be changing any of its usual routines at all. During her hearing appearance, Patrick said that election officials in states like Washington and Arizona said it didn’t take any longer than usual to get ballots to voters in recent primaries, and that local postal officials were still promising to expedite them, even if states used cheaper postage. During Friday’s hearing, DeJoy said there had been no change in the agency’s policy, and under pressure from New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, he committed to making sure election mail would arrive as fast as it did during the 2018 primaries.

“[DeJoy’s] comments reiterate and reinforce what election officials tell me they’re hearing from their local contacts, and what I’m hearing from my personal contacts,” Democracy Fund’s Patrick told us after the Friday hearing. ”I think it was important for him to come out and clearly articulate from the top office of the organization, their commitment to voting by mail, absentee mail, and ballots. But we will continue to watch, and be vigilant.” Obviously, so should you.

Update, Aug. 24, 2020: This article was updated to mention the Postal Service inspector general’s findings in 2019 on overtime pay.

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