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Q&A: Spokane postmaster and union president respond to concerns about USPS

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 15, 2020

The U.S. Postal Service processing and distribution center at 2928 South Spotted Road.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The U.S. Postal Service processing and distribution center at 2928 South Spotted Road. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane Postmaster Earl Eisenrich and Wanda Emmert, president of the American Postal Workers Union’s Inland Empire Area Local, have more than 50 years of combined experience at the U.S. Postal Service .

Eisenrich is currently detailed to serve as plant manager at the Spokane processing and distribution center, which serves more than 600,000 addresses in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Emmert leads the local union branch that represents more than 300 mail workers including clerks, maintenance technicians and truck drivers.

Since Eisenrich started in 1999, and Emmert in 1984, the post office has seen plenty of changes – the advent of the internet brought a decline in first-class letters and online shopping has led to far more packages – but none more challenging than the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two local USPS leaders spoke with The Spokesman-Review about how the virus has impacted postal workers in the Spokane region, what voters can expect with mail-in voting this fall, and what they wish more people understood about the Postal Service. The two USPS veterans don’t agree on everything, but they both wanted to clear up what they see as misconceptions about the agency and its more than 630,000 employees. Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

There’s been a lot of attention recently on the Postal Service losing money in recent years. What’s behind those losses?

Wanda Emmert: Well, part of it is pre-funding that Congress put on us. (A 2006 law requires the post office to pre-fund 75 years of health benefits, more than $5 billion annually, a requirement no government agency or private company faces.)

If they would get that off of us, we would be fine. And the other thing is that we’re not a business, we’re a service. We’re not supposed to be making a profit. We’re providing a service to the public. That’s a lot of our problem. If we could get Congress to take that (pre-funding requirement) off, we would be just hunky-dory.

Earl Eisenrich: Our vehicle fleet is so outdated – it’s way past how long they were intended to be kept – and we have the single largest private vehicle fleet in the world, at over 200,000 vehicles. So on the delivery side, we’re struggling to keep those vehicles going.

Also, salaries make up almost 70% of the gross (expenses) of the company. That business model is very expensive, and letters and flats were our bread and butter – they’re easy to process, easy to carry and easy to deliver – whereas this switch to parcels is much more labor-intensive. In many cases, we can’t even fit all the packages in a vehicle for one run. We have to make multiple trips.

Those are some reasons why we need more than just the pre-funding (change). There are some bills in Congress (to provide additional funding) and we need some relief, I think.

How has COVID-19 affected the Postal Service in the Spokane area?

Emmert: Well, some of it is overtime for employees. Because schools are not open, we have parents having to take time off because they have to home-school or be home for little ones. That’s part of the problem: We don’t have as many people as we should, so the overtime is up (for workers filling in for others).

We also have lots of packages. Our packages are at Christmas-type numbers. That’s what I see from my side, with my people.

Eisenrich: Certainly the PPE costs are significant, and that’s not unique to the Postal Service. Certainly employee availability is a big problem. Every day there are new issues that are coming out from people (having to miss work) to take care of their kids. Until we get a vaccine or this changes, it has really off-kiltered us as a business, that’s for sure.

After Postmaster General Louis DeJoy took the helm at the USPS in June, there were reports that he moved to curtail overtime, although DeJoy has denied that. What’s the current situation with overtime in Spokane?

Emmert: It never was curtailed. We move the mail in Spokane, and so there was never a curtailment of overtime.

Eisenrich: Yeah, we’re running double-digit overtime right now. I think DeJoy was trying to be a responsible business leader, understanding that penalty overtime – that’s double what the base pay is – that’s extremely expensive, and for a company with our balance sheet that was certainly something that he would need to address. But as Wanda said, we have not (curtailed overtime).

There was uproar this summer over blue USPS collection boxes being removed, before DeJoy announced Aug. 18 no more boxes would be removed until after the election. Were any of those boxes removed in the Spokane area? Why?

Emmert: They’ll take them out for two reasons: One, they may be taking them out just for housekeeping – fresh paint, fresh labels to spruce them up. Or because there’s not very many pieces in them. If you’ve got a row of five boxes and only four of them are getting full, they may take that fifth one out because it’s not being used.

Eisenrich: During the civil unrest (after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May), the FBI recommended that I pull 31 boxes out of the downtown core where that was going on, so I temporarily removed them and I put them right back, all 31 of them. We didn’t have any intent of keeping them out of there.

We do a multi-week count every year on the number of pieces in every box and an analysis is done. There’s been a significant decline (in mail volume), and the amount of pieces in those blue boxes is down commensurately. There are some where I get more debris than I do mail. I actually like having the blue boxes out there because I like seeing signs of the Postal Service, and the public seems to feel the same way, but the reality is that some of those blue boxes are so underutilized that to have somebody drive to it for five pieces of mail – at some point, that’s an efficiency thing.

DeJoy has acknowledged making one change that did worsen mail delays: cutting down on late and additional truck trips, which has led to some mail being left behind for the next truck to pick up. Has that happened in Spokane?

Emmert: I haven’t heard of any mail being left behind, and we would hear about it because that is something that people can get in trouble for, and so that is something that I would hear about.

Eisenrich: I don’t know what might be going on at some of the larger facilities in the U.S., but it’s really mind-blowingly impressive how we (process all the mail) for dispatch. It’s a work of art.

What about the removal of sorting machines, which DeJoy also halted Aug. 18? Did that affect the Spokane plant?

Eisenrich: There was one DBCS (delivery bar code sorter) removed, so it took them from 14 down to 13. But there were 22 of them 12 years ago, and we see (mail volume) declines across the board in letters and flats. We’re running more hours on less machines, but we have far less volume, too.

Could removing some of those sorting machines hurt the Postal Service’s ability to handle mail-in ballots?

Emmert: Ballots come in with special labels on them. They’re already broken down into ZIP codes and they go right to their machine. I mean, they’re handled with kid gloves like they’re gold. There is no reason for the public to worry. This isn’t the first time that we’ve done this.

Eisenrich: I can’t speak nationally, but I know that with the firepower that we have here (in terms of sorting machines), the election mail will not be a problem, the ballots will not be a problem. The problems that Wanda and I describe on the parcel side, that’s real. The perception that we’ll struggle with ballots is not real.

What has actually changed at the USPS in the Spokane area since DeJoy took over the agency June 15?

Emmert: Other than that faux pas in Wenatchee (where outgoing mail processing briefly stopped in August), nothing’s happened in Spokane. It’s business as usual. We have a new plant manager in Earl, but day to day for my position as lead clerk, nothing’s changed. Other than the rally that we had to inform the public that we’re still here and we’re going to do our job, nothing’s changed here in Spokane. We’re doing the mail every day like we have for the 36 years I’ve been here.

Eisenrich: The increased parcel volume, mainly from COVID, but it’s not unique to DeJoy. As far as how we’re directing our employees both in customer service and the plant, it’s the same. I just think that the ongoing COVID stuff is not helping.

What will happen when a voter drops a ballot in a blue collection box in Spokane this fall?

Emmert: It’s just like a regular envelope. We sort it to where it goes and it goes out that night.

Eisenrich: It’s a simplified mail flow. It gets minimal mail processing coming back and gets put in full trays of ballots which then flow to (the Spokane County Auditor’s office). So that mail piece has a very easy life coming back through the plant.

We validate through the election cycle that our canceler (machines) are working properly so they get a good date on the mail piece, and we search the facility daily to validate that we’ve dispatched all ballots. I just wish the public could comprehend that, because it is an all-out, no-fail effort.

What do you most want people to understand about the Postal Service?

Emmert: I just want the public to know that all postal workers are striving to get their letters and mail to them.

Eisenrich: I feel that there’s a lot of disruption in our industry – and in business in general – but we are as committed to collecting, processing and delivering the mail as we always have been. One can debate whether or not it’s overnight, but you can’t debate the commitment to getting that mail piece where it needs to go, and at a value that nobody else can rival. And we appreciate being the most trusted organization, and I see the pride in our employees to maintain that. I just can’t imagine this country without the United States Postal Service.

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.

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