Documents displayed during Monday’s House Oversight Committee hearing with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy show just how far behind the Postal Service has fallen since DeJoy took over in June.
DeJoy spent the morning defending his brief, scandal-ridden time as postmaster general before the committee. Citing complaints from constituents and postal workers across the country, Democratic committee members offered a scathing review of DeJoy’s performance thus far, portraying him as either grossly incompetent or purposely negligent. Republicans, meanwhile, labeled as “conspiracy theory” the fears that any slowdown would impact the counting of electoral ballots, while praising DeJoy for efforts to see the USPS, as they put it, “return to being a viable institution.”
At the hearing’s outset, Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) held up an internal USPS document titled “Service Performance Management,” a briefing she said was delivered to DeJoy less than two weeks ago.
“According to this document, these delays are not just a dip,” Maloney said. “This document warns the postmaster general of significant and widespread drops across the board. In First-Class marketing, periodicals, and other categories. This document shows these delays are not a myth or a conspiracy theory, as some of my colleagues have argued.”
She added, “These steep declines did not start in April or May, when the coronavirus crisis hit us, but in July when Mr. DeJoy came on board and began making his changes.”
The internal documents, three pages of which were obtained by Gizmodo, reveal sharp declines in the postal service’s performance beginning in mid-July, roughly a month after DeJoy took office. The dip affects both the processing and delivery of various types of mail, including First-Class, periodicals, and marketing mail. USPS performance is shown as lower than desired overall since at least March, when covid-19 infections really began to pick up, but there is a clear, sizable shift downward in USPS’s efficiency under DeJoy’s watch.
DeJoy, for his part, reaffirmed a commitment he made before the Senate last week to prioritize the delivery of ballots, though at the same time was adamant he would not reinstall any of the nearly 700 mail-sorting machines he ordered unplugged at mail processing centers—most, if not all, of which had been slated for removal prior to his appointment. The matter of the unplugged machines is complex and not, as some suggest, merely an overt attempt to subvert American democracy.
USPS centers use various machines to sort flat-shaped mail. One machine ensures all letters are facing the same direction and that the postage is properly “cancelled,” i.e., stamped with a postmark. The “flats” are then sometimes fed into other machines, typically assigned to a specific ZIP code, which automate the sorting of letters into the proper sequence for carrier routes.
While sorting machines are theoretically more efficient than hand sorting and reduce labor costs, they require regular maintenance and are expensive to acquire. What’s more, the use of flat mail has declined roughly 5% each year since 2011, as Americans began to rely more today on electronic communication. Due to this, the USPS had already been planning—before the coronavirus hit—to cut the number of sorting machines nationwide by roughly 10%.
Republicans say the changes implemented by DeJoy are sorely needed to help keep the Postal Service afloat. If you ignore the timing of the changes and the fact that Congress could provide financial aid if it really wanted, that argument is not entirely disingenuous. Democrats, on the other hand, say that now is not the hour for any drastic changes at the USPS, and that taxpayers should float the institutions billions of dollars during this turbulent time. And they, too, have a point.
Stuck at home, many bored and depressed, Americans have essentially rediscovered an old reliance on physical mail. Postal workers have told Gizmodo it’s “like Christmas in July,” the holidays being their normal peak season. That’s an apt analogy. Birthday parties are canceled; no one is exchanging gifts in person after the birth of a newborn; attending funerals is, in most cases, impossible. People are carrying on, but at a distance from one another, and the mail is one big way of doing that. You can’t send flowers by email.
This very different, albeit temporary, shift in the American lifestyle has placed unprecedented strain on a workforce that has long considered overtime more or less mandatory. It is much cheaper to pay a single person overtime than to pay for the salary and benefits of two people. Hard work is not just a part of USPS culture; being overworked is practically a staple of its mythos. Being undeterred by “snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” is not an official agency motto, but text cribbed from a 2,300-year-old parchment. Yet today that line still accurately describes what most people think a letter carrier’s work ethic should be.
Reducing operations and limiting employee hours during this freak influx has had a demonstrable impact on a service that only runs well when all the mail gets delivered. In fact, backups compound exponentially: Undelivered mail will have to be dealt with the following day, potentially causing a delay in that day’s deliveries, and then in the next day’s deliveries, and then the next, ad infinitum. Someone, at some point, in other words, has to restore order by picking up the slack—which, yes, usually requires working overtime. But even before the pandemic, many postal facilities were already being run by skeleton crews. Now, workers are getting sick, and unassigned routes are being split between carriers who already have their own routes and deadlines to meet.
With a national election on the horizon, facilities are preparing for what they know will be a flood of absentee ballots—which are, by the way, letter mail that in most cases would have been sorted by some of the machines unplugged and waiting to be evacuated from plant floors.
What effect this reductions in staff, equipment, and other resources will have on the safe delivery of ballots is yet to be seen. But what’s becoming clear is this: If this ship is off course, it is too late to right it now. As another postal worker told Gizmodo last week, “The damage has already been done.”