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“It’s Tolerating Poor Service at the Top”

What the coming changes to the U.S. Postal Service really mean for the mail.

Louis DeJoy speaks while seated in a congressional hearing.
DeJoy announced new mail slowdowns on Tuesday. Jim Watson/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced a 10-year plan to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday that would slow down deliveries, raise prices for services, and shorten hours at post offices. The sweeping overhaul, called “Delivering for America,” is aimed at reducing costs for the agency and gearing its operations more toward packages than mail. “Our Plan calls for growth and investments, as well as targeted cost reductions and other strategies that will enable us to operate in a precise and efficient manner to meet future challenges, as we put the Postal Service on a path for financial sustainability and service excellence,” DeJoy said in a press release. The Washington Post was the first to report the new plan.

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To critics of DeJoy’s rocky tenure at USPS, this plan was yet another fireable offense. But how bad is it really? To understand how the different parts of DeJoy’s initiative could affect everyone’s mail, I spoke to several experts on the Postal Service. They’re not happy.

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A brief history of DeJoy: This week’s announcement comes as the postmaster general, a logistics executive and major donor to former President Donald Trump, faces pressure from Democrats calling for his ouster. President Joe Biden cannot directly fire DeJoy; only the board of governors, which oversees the USPS and is currently dominated by Trump appointees, has that power. Last week, more than 50 House Democrats called on Biden to fire the six members currently sitting on the board for cause, though it’s unclear whether such a move would hold up in court. DeJoy first came under fire in summer 2020 when he instituted a raft of cost-saving measures like cutting overtime and limiting extra trips for trucks to deliver late mail that contributed to a major slowdown in postal services. Ever since then, USPS has never quite gotten back on track with delivery rates—a problem that was especially pronounced during this year’s pandemic-transformed holiday season.

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For J. Remy Green, an attorney who’s represented New York plaintiffs suing USPS for its service rollbacks, DeJoy’s new plan serves to ensure that the slowdowns we’ve already seen won’t be corrected. “It amounts to ossifying the damage that DeJoy managed to do over the last year,” they said. “It means that while they were telling everybody that they planned to get things back up to standard, they were behind the scenes planning to accept this as a new normal.”

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The change that most concerns Postal Service experts seems to be DeJoy’s move to extend the window for first-class mail by a day, meaning that local deliveries would take up to three days, while nonlocal ones would take from four to six days. DeJoy told a House panel in February that he was considering such an extension. “Does it make a difference if it’s an extra day to get a letter?” he said. “Because something has to change.” Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, said that this sentiment and the accompanying policy decision could actually have a far more negative impact than DeJoy would suggest. “It’s a terrible message to send, because it’s tolerating poor service at the top,” he said. “It’s tolerating mail service that is not as good as it was 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.” Steidler pointed out that service also took a nosedive the last time USPS formally codified a reduction in standards in 2012, which included shifting much of the mail that would normally be delivered overnight to a two-day or three-to-five-day window instead. From 1971 to 2012, USPS had a one-day delivery standard for a good portion of its first-class mail. The one-day standard was eliminated completely by 2015. The Delivering for America plan augurs a further decline.

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DeJoy is downgrading mail delivery services with an eye toward reorienting the Postal Service around packages under the premise that many communications have already moved online, and therefore that part of the service has become less economically beneficial for the agency. Package volumes, on the other hand, have sharply increased, particularly during the pandemic as many consumers have been wary of shopping in person. Steidler thinks that dramatically shifting the focus away from mail would be a mistake. “The mission of the Postal Service has been to deliver mail,” he said. “They’re the only folks who can deliver mail. There’s a lot of other folks who can deliver packages out there.” Green added that many people still depend on letters for essential errands in a timely manner. “At least in the old service centers, what they really cared about is how many letters they get in within one or two days of their commitment, and so we’re pushing that back for the kinds of things people are set up to send through the mail, like prescriptions and taxes,” they said.

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The American Postal Workers Union released a statement relaying “deep concerns” about aspects of the plan that would slow the mail and reduce access to post offices. At the same time, though, the union applauded other measures set out in the plan, like the hiring of 11,000 additional career workers for sorting facilities, the building of 46 new annexes to deal with higher package volumes, and the investment of $4 billion to improve retail locations. The statement reads, “We welcome the opportunity this plan affords to start a discussion about the future of the USPS. Over the coming months, we will work with management, the PRC [Postal Regulatory Commission], Congress and others to put into place the elements of the plan we support and to address the areas where we disagree.”

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