Mail delays at the U.S. Postal Service have caused alarm in the run-up to a high-stakes general election that will see an unprecedented level of mail-in voting due to COVID-19, but USPS leaders and union officials say the agency is prepared to handle election mail and the real causes of the delays have been widely misunderstood.
Reports of blue collection boxes and mail sorting machines being removed – coming as President Donald Trump has railed against mail-in voting – have stoked fears of politically motivated changes under new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major GOP donor. But postal workers and union officials across Washington say the slowdown is the result of three other factors: a flood of packages, pandemic-related staffing problems and a move by DeJoy to cut down on late and extra truck trips.
The delays are not in dispute. Initially slow to respond to calls for transparency, on Aug. 31 DeJoy sent lawmakers charts showing that the on-time delivery rate had hovered around 90% from mid-March until early July, when it fell sharply to below 80%. That means roughly one in five pieces of first-class mail took more than five days to reach its destination, and more than 10 days for bulk-rate marketing mail.
That drop in on-time delivery coincided, DeJoy admitted to lawmakers, with a seemingly straightforward change he made shortly after taking over the top job to minimize trucks making late and extra trips carrying mail between USPS facilities.
On June 16, DeJoy’s second day on the job, the USPS Office of Inspector General published a report that found about 20% of truck trips in fiscal year 2019 left late. Those late departures, the overtime they caused and other inefficiencies led to more than $4 billion in excess costs, the OIG report concluded.
DeJoy, who had never worked for the Postal Service but for years ran a trucking and logistics company, told House and Senate committees in late August he saw running trucks on time as “a fundamental premise of how the whole mail network is put together.”
“The change I made,” DeJoy said in an Aug. 24 hearing, “was (to) ask the team to run the trucks on time and mitigate extra trips based on a review of an OIG audit that was absolutely astonishing in the amount of money we were spending and the number of late trips and extra trips we were running.”
The charts DeJoy presented to Congress show steep declines starting in early July in the number of delayed and additional trips, but the on-time delivery rates for first-class mail, marketing mail and periodicals – such as newspapers and magazines – all fell around that same time.
Ryan Harris, Washington state president of the American Postal Workers Union, said those delays are the result of trucks leaving before all the mail in a plant has been processed due to delays in other locations, a sorting machine needing repairs or simply day-to-day fluctuations in mail volume.
“Under the new guidelines, if the truck isn’t loaded with mail, it goes out whether the mail’s there or not,” Harris said. “The problem we’re having is the trucks don’t match up to the operations of the scheduling of the machines’ run time.”
Harris said DeJoy’s change makes sense in theory and will likely save money, but it fails to account for the flexibility on which USPS has long relied. Cutting down on late trips means mail that before may have been delayed by 15 minutes now has to wait hours for the next truck, and fewer extra trips means that left-behind mail piles up.
“A lot of the trucks are going out with little to no mail,” he said. “Then they have to put it on the next truck, and the next truck may have too much mail, so that’s where the backlog is coming up, if there’s no extra trucks and all the trucks must run on time.”
DeJoy told lawmakers the on-time delivery rates would bounce back as the system adjusted to the new orders, though he said the recovery was taking longer than he had expected. The charts show an uptick in on-time deliveries starting in mid-August, but the trend lines stop at Aug. 22 and the USPS has not yet released more recent numbers.
But the effort to enforce on-time truck departures didn’t happen in a vacuum. It came as the USPS was contending with two long-running challenges, both exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: a change in the types of mail the agency handles and a workforce that’s stretched thin and increasingly reliant on overtime.
The volume of first-class mail, the Postal Service’s most profitable product, has been falling for decades with the advent of online communication. After peaking at more than 103 billion pieces in 2001, first-class mail volume dropped by nearly half to less than 55 billion in 2019.
At the same time, the growth of online commerce has driven up the number of packages the USPS delivers. From 2010 to 2019, volume doubled from 3.1 billion to 6.2 billion parcels. Pandemic-fueled online shopping has accelerated that trend, with the Postal Service handling nearly 50% more packages in the quarter ending June 30 than in the same period a year earlier.
Ernie Swanson, a USPS spokesman in Seattle, declined to provide state or regional mail volume data but wrote in an email, “Due to COVID-19, we have had substantial increases in our parcel volumes in Washington State thanks to more people shopping and shipping online.”
DeJoy told senators in an Aug. 21 hearing that hundreds of mail sorting machines that were slated to be removed were “not needed” because of this change in what postal insiders call the “mail mix.” Facing public backlash, on Aug. 18 DeJoy put the removal of sorting machines on hold until after the election, but the plan was set in motion before he took office and is likely to resume after Nov. 3.
While overall mail volume has steadily declined in recent years, the number of address the Postal Service delivers to has increased by more than 1 million each year since 2013. That means the cost of each delivery has gone up.
The shift from envelopes to packages also means more work for mail carriers, who have traditionally parked their trucks and carried letters up and down each block on foot. The spike in parcel volume often requires carriers to make multiple trips to fill their trucks with boxes that take up more space.
Those changes have strained a workforce that was already spread thin before the pandemic arrived, and COVID-19 has also impacted workers more directly. Roughly 40,000 of the Postal Service’s 633,000 employees have been in quarantine at some point since March due to potential coronavirus exposure, APWU President Mark Dimondstein told Fox News Aug. 18.
Swanson, the USPS spokesman, said even postal workers who aren’t sick have been allowed to take time off for other reasons permitted by legislation Congress passed in March.
“Like other businesses and organizations,” Swanson wrote in an email, “we are impacted by COVID-19. We updated our policies to allow generous use of leave and to give our employees the ability to stay home whenever they feel sick, must provide dependent care, or any other qualifying factor under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.”
Those staffing shortages have forced the USPS to use more overtime. Even before the pandemic, an Aug. 25 OIG report found, the agency spent over $5 billion on overtime. More than 4,000 workers made more in overtime pay than regular pay in the last fiscal year, and 42% of workers logged unauthorized overtime, the report found.
Union leaders in Washington say COVID-related staffing problems have worsened that problem. Wanda Emmert, president of the APWU’s Inland Empire Area Local, said many of her union members in the Spokane USPS plant are working six days and up to 60 hours per week.
Harris, who also serves as president of the APWU Wenatchee Area Local, said even the nominally “part-time” employees there are working more than 50 hours per week. In recent years Postal Service has increasingly relied on these “non-career” workers, who aren’t guaranteed a set schedule and don’t receive the same benefits as career employees, to cut costs.
In his House and Senate testimony, DeJoy denied earlier reports that he had moved to curtail overtime. Gordon Williams, president of the Washington chapter of the United Postmasters and Managers of America, said overtime is still being authorized in the state but at times requires approval from regional or even national management.
“We have to go through more layers of overtime authority,” Williams said, “which obviously is a hindrance to trying to deal with the 30% to 70% increase in parcel volume that we have currently. … It’s affecting local operations for sure, but we’re doing the best we can.”
“People are just flat-out tired,” Emmert said. “We’re ready to have a little bit of a break and I don’t see that coming.”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.