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Postal Service workers quietly resist DeJoy’s changes with eye on election

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/29/2020 Jacob Bogage
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This summer, as controversial new procedures at the U.S. Postal Service snarled the nation’s mail delivery and stirred fears of how the agency would handle the election, rank-and-file workers quietly began to resist.

Mechanics in New York drew out the dismantling and removal of mail-sorting machines until their supervisor gave up on the order. In Michigan, a group of letter carriers did an end run around a supervisor’s directive to leave election mail behind, starting their routes late to sift through it. In Ohio, postal clerks culled prescriptions and benefit checks from bins of stalled mail to make sure they were delivered, while some carriers ran late items out on their own time. In Pennsylvania, some postal workers looked for any excuse — a missed turn, heavy traffic, a rowdy dog — to buy enough time to finish their daily rounds.

“I can’t see any postal worker not bending those rules,” one Philadelphia staffer said in an interview.

With the Postal Service expected to play a historic role in this year’s election, some of the agency’s 630,000 workers say they feel a responsibility to counteract cost-cutting changes from their new boss, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, that they blame for the mail slowdowns. They question whether DeJoy — a top Republican fundraiser and booster of President Trump — is politicizing the institution in service to a president who has actively tried to sow distrust of mail-in voting, insisting without evidence that it will lead to massive fraud.

DeJoy insists the operational shifts were not politically motivated, emphasizing that he inherited an agency on the verge of financial collapse. At the time of his arrival in June, the Postal Service also was trying to fend off a takeover by Trump’s Treasury Department, according to internal Postal Service documents. Its workforce was getting flattened by the pandemic as a result of surging absences and package volumes, and its biggest customer, Amazon, was threatening to pull its multibillion-dollar business.

a hand holding a cellphone: A postal worker is photographed in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 11. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post) A postal worker is photographed in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 11. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)

With a mandate to stabilize the Postal Service’s balance sheet, especially its $160.9 billion worth of debt, DeJoy imposed stricter dispatch schedules on transport trucks that prohibited late and extra trips, forcing workers to leave mail behind. Managers cracked down on overtime, though DeJoy contends they did so of their own accord. He also declined to reinstall hundreds of mail-sorting machines and blue collection boxes removed under his watch. Though he put some of these efforts on hold after public backlash, and four federal judges have since issued temporary injunctions on all operational changes, DeJoy has deeper cuts in store. He told lawmakers last month to expect “dramatic” changes after the November election, including reductions in service and price increases for Americans in rural areas.

DeJoy’s approach marks a fundamental shift, experts say, modeling the agency as more business enterprise than government service. But it also has profound implications for employees in the form of heavier workloads and lost overtime.

In interviews, 15 Postal Service workers and local union leaders in eight states described a deep decline in morale since DeJoy made clear his intent to retool the Postal Service — with little input from the heavily unionized workforce — that have fixed intense public and congressional scrutiny on the agency. They also say they are prepared to defy directives that would limit how they do their jobs.

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Internal USPS document told employees to leave mail at distribution centers

Most of the workers interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were acting against agency guidance. Last month, an internal Postal Service memo warned employees not to speak to journalists and to be wary of customers who ask “a series of questions.”

The Postal Service’s dire financial situation, coupled with mounting political pressure, and worries about an election in which nearly 180 million Americans are eligible to vote by mail, has begun to overwhelm its workforce.

“People are burned out,” one New Jersey letter carrier said. “I haven’t been this burned out in a long time, and I’ve been doing this a long time. We’ve never had a summer like this. I tell my customers, ‘Call your congressman, because I’m being told not to deliver your mail.’ ”

a truck parked on the side of a road: A postal worker delivers packages in Brooklyn on Sept. 10. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post) © Calla Kessler/For the Washington Post A postal worker delivers packages in Brooklyn on Sept. 10. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)

‘Every piece, every day’

New postal workers are introduced to the agency’s unofficial motto within their first days on the job: “Every piece, every day.” It’s referenced so frequently that “EPED” is shorthand to work faster, or longer, when mail piles up. Any conscious effort to delay mail is, under federal law, punishable by fine and as much as five years of imprisonment.

Many postal workers see the changes that have slowed mail as violating the spirit, if not the letter, of that law.

They view themselves as couriers of prescription medications, paychecks, bills and more, and also as neighbors to the people on their routes, checking in on elderly residents and delivering life’s necessities. The coronavirus pandemic has only magnified that sense of responsibility, they say.

“You look at the news and you get worried,” said one Philadelphia postal worker. “Are we going to be the end-all, be-all of election integrity and covid response for this country? Having your own personal problems, too, it all adds up. I think it’s really starting to get to people, both newer and seasoned veterans of the job.”

Since his June 15 start, DeJoy has focused on shoring up the Postal Service’s finances. Despite surging package volumes during the pandemic, the agency has been losing ground on first-class and marketing mail — its most profitable products — for years.

“The thing is, right now the size of their hole is so big and continuing to grow, there is no one silver bullet to fix this,” said Kenneth John, president of the Postal Policy Associates consultancy and a former senior analyst at the Government Accountability Office. “They’ve done a lot of the low-hanging fruit already, so you’re left with a set of really difficult choices. You’re left with really big changes.”

What’s more, he added, DeJoy’s efforts can close only a relatively small portion of the agency’s debt. “You’re either left with these difficult choices and big changes, or ultimately, Congress is going to need to pay for it.”

Much of the Postal Service’s financial difficulty is structural: Congress reorganized the agency in 1970 and essentially ordered it to operate as both a public service and business. As such, it is supposed to be self-sustaining without benefit of taxpayer funding. But the passage of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act mandated that it prepay employees’ retirement and health-care benefits, an obligation held by few other government agencies, let alone private companies. Today, retiree costs account for nearly three-fourths, or $119.3 billion, of its debt.

Because the Postal Service lacks revenue streams divorced from mail volumes, nearly any cost-cutting maneuver would almost certainly hurt service, an issue that draws heaps of congressional attention even as lawmakers have put off substantial postal reform. But some of DeJoy’s changes go right to the heart of the agency’s operations. Some flexibility in delivery schedules, such as allowing late or extra delivery trips, ensures that mail arrives on time, experts say, and prevents backlogs.

Postal leaders have long relied on overtime to keep the mail moving, as it is more cost efficient than expanding payroll. That supplemental income is a boon for many workers — comprising nearly 10 percent of all work hours within any given pay period — but an albatross for agency finances. Yet government watchdog groups, including the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General, have identified overtime as a potential source of cost savings.

“If it means you’re going to hire more workers, there are going to be more families that have a family-sustaining union job, that’s fine with us,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which represents more than 200,000 current and retired postal employees. “If it means you’re going to cut out overtime and, therefore, the people are not going to get the service that they need and deserve, then it’s horrible.”

The cost-cutting efforts have led to multiday delays in communities all over the country. As of the final week of August — five weeks after DeJoy’s changes took effect — on-time delivery rates for first-class mail had declined from more than 90 percent to roughly 85 percent, according to Postal Service data provided to Congress. For periodicals, they went from 80 percent to 75 percent.

John Barger, a Republican member of the Postal Service’s governing board, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee this month that DeJoy’s changes were starting to “bear fruit” and that the board was pleased with his performance. “The board is tickled pink,” he said.

“Thanks to the great work and dedication of our employees, our service performance continues to improve,” a Postal Service spokesman said in an emailed statement to The Post.

But some workers vividly recalled scenes of mail and packages piling up, days at a time, this summer during the worst stretches of the transition. Postal workers in Michigan and Iowa described seeing entire pallets of boxes go unsorted and sit outdoors in the rain or summer heat. Sometimes the smell of rotting food attracted swarms of flies, they said.

At the Royal Palm Processing and Distribution Center in Opa-locka, Fla., massive stacks of marketing mail sat untouched for 43 days, according to local union officials.

“You know, it’s just disheartening,” said Dana Coletti, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 230 in Manchester, N.H.

Four federal courts also took issue with DeJoy’s changes. Judges in Washington state, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia all held that the Postal Service should have sought an advisory opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission — a process that would have allowed for public comment — before instituting the new cost-cutting measures. The judges blocked the agency from pursuing DeJoy’s plans, and lawyers representing 19 states and a group of voters who brought the suit are in negotiations with the Postal Service over a potential settlement.

a person holding a sign: A postal worker retrieves packages in Brooklyn on Sept. 11. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post) A postal worker retrieves packages in Brooklyn on Sept. 11. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)

‘The stakes definitely feel higher’

The long mail delays made some postal workers think more about the role they’d be playing come election season.

The Pennsylvania primary in early June provided a taste of what was to come, said the Philadelphia worker. Though the pandemic was the biggest worry at the time, “we had a lot of issues. There were people at the plant that weren’t coming in or were sick. We were seeing delays with that. So now we’re looking at this [general election] and going, ‘Oh, jeez, this is not going to be good.’ The stakes definitely feel higher, especially given what this election really means.”

In Michigan, one postal worker considered the removal of public mailboxes, which are subject to periodic checks to ensure they are being used, as disproportionately affecting people of color. When a collection box is removed in a wealthy suburb, residents have the time and resources to push back, said the carrier, who is Black. But when it’s removed in a racially diverse working-class neighborhood, it’s just another government service that’s been clawed back.

“It’s kind of like everything else. It wasn’t built for us,” the worker said of the Postal Service and its relationship with Black people.

DeJoy’s background — he’s donated more than $2 million to the Trump campaign and GOP causes since 2016 — doesn’t help matters, the postal worker said, and makes him feel as though the Republican Party has co-opted the Postal Service.

Taken together, Trump’s repeated attacks on mail-in voting, his connection with DeJoy, and DeJoy’s operational changes look too conspicuous to be coincidental, the carrier said, even if DeJoy has stated publicly that he’d stand up to the president when necessary. Some postal workers say the pushback has to start with them to show that DeJoy’s instructions go against the mail service’s operational and ethical mandates. Plus, they say, they are legally bound to ensure the timely delivery of mail.

In New York, one mechanic expressed dismay that he is surrounded by a “bunch of yes men” who are simply going to follow orders.

“It’s disheartening to hear from my boss that he wants me to do something that could very potentially cripple the system. It’s disheartening to hear that people think we’re going to fail. We handle this kind of volume all the time,” he said of the election. “But if they do these things with delivery times and we get high volume around holiday season and the election, it will fail. No question. It will fail. We should get the ballots out. We really should, but all it would take is one person in a nice shiny suit to say, ‘Leave those ballots, take the other mail.’ And everyone would say, ‘Yes sir.’

“There’s a point where I got angry. I’m not happy at all that I’m being politicized. I’m literally trying to do my job, and they’re telling me that I can’t.”

a truck is parked in front of a bus: A postal worker on a route in Brooklyn on Sept. 10. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post) A postal worker on a route in Brooklyn on Sept. 10. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)

‘Don’t do anything illegal, unsafe, immoral’

DeJoy on Aug. 18 suspended parts of his cost-cutting program after congressional and public blowback — much of it on social media, where images of mailbox removals were met with suspicion and outrage. But it was too late for most of the 671 mail-sorting machines that had been tapped for dismantling and removal across 49 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

The agency said that the massive machines, representing close to 10 percent of its inventory and capable of sorting 21.4 million pieces of paper mail per hour, had been earmarked long before DeJoy and that their decommissioning was simply a reflection of Americans’ diminishing use for letters and growing reliance on package delivery. But many workers saw it as further erosion of a finely calibrated infrastructure, one with real ramifications for customers who rely on the agency for their prescription medications and other crucial deliveries.

“It bothers me, because I like to do my job. Some of us do this for 20 years,” said the New Jersey letter carrier. “You see kids grow up from babies and watch them get married. They see you in Wawa, and they buy you a coffee. They say, ‘This is my mailman, he’s a great guy.’ Now they say, ‘Where’s my mail?’ ”

Here’s why the Postal Service wanted to remove hundreds of mail-sorting machines

Postal workers’ responses varied from insubordination to small acts of neighborly heroism. In Florida, one manager told of instructing employees to meticulously document their hours and what happens to mail to uphold accountability standards. There are forms for reporting late or undeliverable mail and to record overtime, though several postal workers say supervisors have downplayed the need to complete them in recent weeks.

“What I try to tell people is this: Yes, if you get an instruction, you should follow the instructions of your supervisor,” the manager said. “But every manual says the same thing: Don’t do anything illegal, unsafe, immoral. Well, my manager knows that if he doesn’t want mail to be reported late, to keep the mail out of my building.”

Last month in New York, machinists were ordered to remove sorting machines and use spare parts to augment another, one of the workers said. The person told supervisors that such a move wouldn’t help; the enlarged sorter would be able to collate mail into more carriers’ routes, but it also would process letters more slowly than two machines doing the job simultaneously. When his supervisor told him to repeat the process for another set of machines, the machinist and colleagues balked and drew out the steps required to implement the change. Eventually, superiors gave up on the order.

By then, House and Senate committees had called emergency hearings to cross-examine DeJoy over his relationship with Trump and his operational changes. “I am not engaged in sabotaging the election,” DeJoy testified before the House Oversight Committee on Aug. 24. Days earlier, he told a Senate panel he planned to vote by mail.

In Toledo, mail is shipped to the Michigan Metroplex outside Detroit for processing. When items arrive too late for the trucks headed to Michigan, a manager not eligible for overtime will hop into a Postal Service van and transport that mail separately, said Martin Ramirez, president of the APWU Local 170. That way, the Toledo offices won’t log overtime hours, even though that worker still puts in extra time.

“This is the dancing between the raindrops,” Ramirez said.

As Toledo’s trucks arrive at distribution centers, clerks scan the wire racks carrying the mail to try to spot medications, checks and bills, said Jennifer Lemke, the clerk craft director at Local 170. Even if the day’s mail gets delayed, Lemke and other clerks will retrieve essential items and send them off with carriers.

When angry customers call the post office or come to the retail window, Lemke said, she apologizes for mail delays, then sends for the local postmaster.

“I will put it off on the people that are causing the damage,” she said.

“My message to [local union members] is: You do what you can to satisfy the customer,” Ramirez said. “Look, we’re going to fight from national on down. I don’t need you losing your job.”

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