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The coronavirus, the election and a new postmaster general have created the perfect storm for the already beleaguered U.S. Postal Service.
With an $80 billion budget, USPS employs around 630,000 essential workers nationwide during the pandemic. And while it has less of most types of mail to deliver, the sudden popularity of online shopping has driven an increase in packages to be shipped.
The San Diego district spans from Camp Pendleton to the U.S.-Mexico border, but information about what has changed locally in recent months amid reports of mail delays and allegations of election interference is hard to come by.
Eva Jackson, a spokeswoman for the USPS San Diego district, declined Voice of San Diego’s requests for a visit to the local distribution center, and declined to provide any information specific to San Diego’s operations at all. Instead, she supplied a statement by the newly installed U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the agency’s quarterly financial report and said any other information would have to be obtained with a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
When VOSD pressed for any local information, after noting her response said nothing about San Diego, Jackson wrote in an email Tuesday, “Anything local will need to be accessed via FOIA.”
VOSD filed the FOIA request and is waiting to hear back.
What little we know about local changes to the Postal Service comes from union representatives, but different union leaders have different versions of events and they all differ from DeJoy’s statement. A key question: How many mail sorting machines were taken offline and why does that matter? The machines rapidly categorize mail by destination.
To catch up more broadly, much of the latest concern about the mail stem from changes made by DeJoy, a campaign donor to Presidential Donald Trump, as well as comments by Trump in the media indicating a reluctance to provide the postal service federal stimulus funding he said is needed for universal mail-in voting – something he opposes.
Conservatives have long lobbied for the Postal Service to give way to private and market options and now, the president’s animosity to mail-in voting has fueled conspiracy theories that he is trying to suppress votes. Meanwhile, the postal workers union has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden.
In San Diego, about 76 percent of voters are already registered to vote by mail. This year, all the remaining registered voters will also receive their ballots in the mail. They can mail them back or drop them off at 235 locations that will be open throughout the county for several days before Nov. 3. California has mandated that local vote-counters give ballots postmarked by Election Day up to 17 days to come in, just in case there are delays because of the demand on the mail system.
“There is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be sent to voters in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted,” Thomas J. Marshall, USPS executive vice president, wrote July 31 to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
Reports of mail piling up and mailboxes being removed have emerged from different corners of the country, as have reports DeJoy cracked down on overtime and limited the number of stops delivery drivers can make. Reports out of Los Angeles indicate mail delays have led to rotten food and even dead animals.
DeJoy recently shared a national chart with Congress showing on-time mail processing rates took a dive in July, though almost 95 percent is still on time or one day late, on average.
A chart showing San Diego’s on-time mail delivery performance indicates the region was also falling short of delivery targets last quarter, except in the overnight category.
Here is what we know about San Diego’s USPS operations.
Mail Sorting Machines
Eddie Cowan, regional director for the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, which represents workers in USPS processing and distribution facilities, said three sorting machines had been removed in San Diego in recent months, although that figure may have changed over time. Several mail-stamping machines were also taken out of use, and there were plans to remove a football field-sized sorting machine for larger flat mail, such as newsletters and large envelopes, he said.
Omar Gonzalez, the Western regional coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union, told the Los Angeles Times six machines in San Diego were removed.
Eddie Cooper, with the local chapter of the same postal workers union, which represents 1,500 clerks, maintenance and vehicle workers, also told VOSD six machines were taken offline, though Cooper said any capacity lost by their removal was offset by increased capacity in six other machines so it really isn’t as bad as it sounds.
Cowan said he is seeing mailboxes removed and not replaced for the first time in 27 years of postal service.
Ricardo Guzman, from the National Association of Letter Carriers, said he has not seen any mailboxes removed.
Cooper said there has been a “drastic reduction in overtime” in the last month or two.
Career workers used to average 50 to 54 hours a week and are now down to 40 hours. Those who were at 45 to 50 hours before are down to 24 to 32 hours per week, Cooper said, and he has not seen any extra hiring to make up the lost time.
Cowan said that Postal Service leaders had not eliminated overtime — but that mail sorting procedures had changed, effectively terminating it in certain ways anyway.
In the early morning, trailer trucks leave the Margaret L. Sellers distribution center in San Diego carrying mail for postal stations across the county, Cowan said. Prior to their departure, workers at the center run the mail through large sorting machines to separate out which mail should go where.
Usually, workers would go into overtime if the next day’s mail wasn’t fully sorted for the trucks, Cowan said. But under recent changes, workers were ordered to stop sorting at the end of their shifts. This caused the mail to pile up in distribution centers so badly that workers had to start loading leftover mail into trailers and bringing them out to the parking lot, he said.
Trucks were still ordered to leave on schedule even if workers had not finished loading them fully, Cowan said.
“If the trailer leaves anyway, and it doesn’t have the mail that the people at the station are waiting on, then it gets to the station,” he said. “And the station, they are ready for that work, but they don’t get that work. So now they don’t have any work to do.”
Guzman noted the same. He said that letter carriers returning with outgoing mail at the end of their routes usually handed them straight to mail sorters on overtime, he said. After the changes were implemented, they left them in trailers outside the distribution center to be sorted the following day.
DeJoy’s statement, on the other hand, stated that overtime had continued to be approved. And he said during a recent congressional hearing some $700 million in overtime was approved since his appointment in May.
Congress’ USPS inquiries have made an impact, said Guzman.
Guzman said delays only occurred over a few days several weeks ago and things have since improved with no lasting impacts.
Likewise, Cowan said that although he has not seen a full reversal to the changes, the situation has gotten “drastically” better in recent days. Mail-carrying trucks are no longer being sent out empty, and everything is slowly getting back to normal.
Cowan said they believe the initial changes aimed to undermine mail delivery and now workers fear more changes will be made to slow the Postal Service — and nobody will find out until it is too late.
“That’s our livelihood,” Cowan said. “We feel that we’re not being supported by our leaders, our postal leaders, the postmaster, we’re not being supported to accomplish our goal. He’s trying to tie our hands behind our back.”
USPS officials said operational changes were aimed at decreasing costs and increasing efficiency at the agency, which has long struggled to balance its books.
Postal workers have guaranteed health care insurance after they retire. The government has largely funded this every year just as the bill comes due. But a 2006 law forced them to add up, like with a pension system, how much the guarantee would cost over time and begin to pay that total anticipated sum down every year.
The resulting annual bill was enormous, though USPS has skipped billions in payments since 2010, according to the USPS Office of Inspector General, citing financial constraints. The same law also capped the amount that can be charged for certain postage, limiting the agency’s revenue raising options.
Much of the operation is funded by stamps and fees to deliver mail. But mail volume peaked about 20 years ago and has been steadily declining since, while costs have been steady.
Calls for new taxpayer support of the Postal Service have increased during the pandemic and the latest drama has brought renewed attention to the agency’s plight.
Cooper with American Postal Workers Union said employee morale is low and despite years of financial struggles, he has never seen a situation more dire. Employees have heard they may only have a few months before running out of money entirely.
“I do not know how to do what we do if we don’t get a cash infusion. It is critical,” Cooper said. “It’s been a very bad financial challenge the last few years. … Our livelihood as we know it could be gone. This is not a bluff.”
A June 30 USPS quarterly report to the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission estimated it will have sufficient funds to operate through at least August 2021.
Cooper understood DeJoy’s need to make operational changes.
“I do feel we have opportunities to be more efficient. Obviously, there is something wrong,” said Cooper. “He (DeJoy) needed to stop the bleeding. … I don’t like how he did it.”
A $25 billion aid number being thrown around is the amount set aside for USPS in one of the federal stimulus packages that never got approved. Under the CARES Act stimulus that was approved, USPS got a $10 billion loan, which is helping keep things afloat for now.
But changes in consumer behavior – like the invention of email – and the pandemic continue to have an impact on the agency, which reported processing almost 143 billion pieces of mail last year and $71 billion in revenue, according to its annual congressional report. Add the election, the Census, stimulus checks and a new reliance on home deliveries, and mail feels perhaps more important than ever.
If USPS goes private, Cooper said rates will go up and service will not be the same, because they will make cuts based on what is profitable.
“The American public needs to know if we can’t continue to do what we need to do, veterans won’t get their medication,” Cooper said. “Nobody is going to go to Borrego Springs for five pieces of mail. It’s not profitable. We are a service to the American public.”