KEY POINTS

  • Unlike other government agencies, the postal service does not receive any tax dollars for its operations
  • The agency is carrying some $161 billion in debt and is restricted by law against skimping on pension and healthcare payments
  • The new postmaster general is a former logistics executive who wants to transform the postal service into a business

Cost-cutting moves at the U.S. Postal Service are slowing deliveries, which could keep millions of Americans from getting their mail-in ballots in time for the November election. 

President Trump has attacked the postal service for losing money on package deliveries, especially those sent by Amazon and other e-commerce giants.

In April, when online shopping surged because of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump called the agency “a joke" and bashed Amazon for pushing it even deeper into the red. He blocked a $10 billion congressionally approved emergency loan for the postal service, which ordinarily receives no taxpayer dollars, and promised to put the kibosh on other loans unless package delivery rates quadruple.

A month later, Trump tapped Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and a major donor to Trump's 2016 campaign, to be the nation's 75th postmaster general. DeJoy's mission was to fill the agency's coffers.

The postal service's money problems aren't anything new. The agency hasn't seen a profit since 2006 yet nine out of 10 Americans consistently give it a favorable rating, according to the Pew Research Center.

The agency is carrying some $161 billion in debt, a chunk that by law must go for employee pensions and healthcare payments. The Government Accounting Office has even gone so far as to recommend that Congress reassess what delivery services the nation really needs and how those services should be paid for.

To start whittling down that debt, Dejoy cut overtime. He ordered carriers to hold off sorting mail — a task that used to be done in morning — until after they finished their routes. That switch has backed up all deliveries, even express mail, by one and two days.

The postal service spent $2.9 billion in delivery overtime and penalty overtime in fiscal 2019, plus $1.1 billion in mail processing overtime and penalty overtime, and $280 million in late and extra transportation.

In a memo to workers, DeJoy was forthright about his mission to make the postal service financially solvent and was clear the mail just won't get delivered if the agency had to pay overtime to make that happen.

“One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that – temporarily – we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks,” he wrote.

Route changes and an assortment of issues also have exacerbated delays, reports showed.

The Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, an industry advocacy group, theorizes that the delays could dissipate, “but we’re worried if there’s no real time to sort, and no overtime, then there could be a cumulative, growing impact,” said Arthur Sackler, the coalition's manager.

“If they're talking about delaying mail, if they're talking about sending letter carriers out to the street, even if the truck is late, that means there's a lot of first-class mail that's going to be left on the workroom floor. And there's an almost cavalier attitude about this,” Philip Rubio, a history professor at North Carolina A&T State University and a former letter carrier, told NPR.

The National Association of Letter Carriers objected to the changes, which went into effect July 25 for 60 days at a number of test sites. The union maintains the changes do not comply with union handbook provisions.

Mark Dimondstein, national president of the American Postal Workers Union, told the Intercept the changes are aimed at remaking the culture of the postal service.

“The culture I grew up with, and of generations before me, is that you never leave mail behind. You serve the customer, you get mail to the customer. Prompt, reliable and efficient,” he said.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the changes would be “drastic” in a normal year and worried about the impact on mail-in voting.

“In a presidential election year when many states are relying heavily on absentee mail-in ballots, increases in mail delivery timing would impair the ability of ballots to be received and counted in a timely manner – an unacceptable outcome for a free and fair election,” Maloney wrote in a letter to DeJoy.

Trump, who is trailing in polls to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has been made statements that undermine the integrity of the election, even suggesting the postal service cannot be trusted to deliver ballots. He floated the idea Thursday of postponing the election until danger from the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

“I’m actually terrified to see election season under the new procedure,” Lori Cash, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 183 in Western New York, told the Washington Post.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., told the Post that attacks on the postal service “not only threaten our economy and the jobs of 600,000 workers. With our states now reliant on mail voting to continue elections during the pandemic, the destabilizing of the post office is a direct attack on American democracy itself.”