Major service cuts at the U.S. Postal Service stand to threaten not just regular mail delivery but also absentee voting, just as states in the U.S. get ready to conduct a general election while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
      Photo credit: Creative Commons/Flickr user btwashburn

Republican Party mega-donor Louis DeJoy implemented major service cuts at the U.S. Postal Service almost immediately after being installed as the agency’s 75th postmaster general in June, cuts that not only threaten normal mail delivery but that also take aim at the most reliable method of absentee voting as U.S. states gear up for the first mid-pandemic presidential election in more than a century.

“At a time when so many Americans are relying on the Post Office to deliver everything from online-shopping purchases to prescription drugs, it’s unconscionable that anyone would consider cutting back on services or choosing this particular moment to ‘streamline’ operations,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “It’s especially worrying that these drastic changes are coming just months before an election where record numbers of Americans are expected to choose to keep themselves and their families safe by voting by mail.”

The Post Office operates under a “universal service” mandate that sees it processing and delivering nearly 472 million pieces of mail to every one of the U.S.’s 160 million residential and commercial addresses every Monday through Saturday.

A special arrangement with Amazon has letter carriers delivering that company’s packages on Sundays, but it’s not just Amazon that relies heavily on a thriving USPS. The agency is at the center of a $1.6 trillion U.S. mailing industry that employs more than 7.3 million people, and it often serves as a “last mile” delivery service for packages handed off to it from private carriers such as FedEx and UPS, for whom such deliveries would not be profitable.

“In this electronic information age, the modern Postal Service is still able to rely on the sale of postage and postal products to fully sustain itself,” Stephenson said. Remarkably, the USPS receives no taxpayer funding aside from a modest annual congressional appropriation to cover the cost of mail services for military members serving outside the U.S. and for the blind.

The Postal Service is the only government agency mentioned in the U.S. Constitution: The “postal clause” in Article I, Section 8 empowered Congress to establish post offices and post roads to keep the lines of communication open, much like many members of the IBEW do today, especially those who work in our utility and broadcast branches.

It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 crisis has been just as tough on the Postal Service as it has been for many of the IBEW’s employers and signatory contractors, Stephenson said. “The various shutdowns in the commercial and government sectors, thanks to the coronavirus, have led to massive revenue losses for the agency,” he said.

But this latest spate of surprise cuts in services and workers’ hours also has made things even harder for the Post Office’s unionized workers, too. “Of the Postal Service’s half-million employees,” Stephenson said, “we need to remember that the frontline clerks, mail sorters and letter carriers – who have continued to show up for work just like we have despite the COVID-19 pandemic – are our union brothers and sisters.”

Four separate organizations represent these employees: the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association and the National Postal Mailhandlers Union. “They’re hurting right now, and solidarity demands that we try to support them in any way we can,” Stephenson said.

And as ill-timed and highly controversial as DeJoy’s service cuts have been, they are just the latest examples of a long history of White House and congressional tinkering that for decades has plagued the historic agency.

The modern U.S. Postal Service as a government-owned corporation was created by Congress in 1970, several months after 200,000 postal workers across the country went on an illegal eight-day strike for better wages and working conditions. Ever since, the USPS has ably covered its operational costs by selling postage and postal products, even as the rise of the internet caused mail volumes to fall. The service’s reported “financial losses” in recent years are the direct result of a law passed by Congress in 2006 that forced it to use up its often billion-dollar annual surpluses, not on equipment modernization, but on the prefunding of decades’ worth of health benefits for future retirees, a requirement expected of no other private company or government agency.

More recently, the Treasury Department in March tried to block a House proposal in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to grant $25 billion in financial relief to the Postal Service as it faced COVID-19. Instead, the department offered the struggling agency a $10 billion loan, but with cumbersome strings attached like service cuts and other potentially harmful changes.

After DeJoy’s installation as postmaster general, reports started pouring in from across the country that the agency was cutting workers’ hours, dismantling mail-sorting machines and removing dozens of its familiar blue neighborhood collection boxes. Customers complained loudly to the news media and online that pieces of mail that might have taken two days to get delivered – such as cards, bills and payments – were now taking up to two weeks.

The timing of these particular service cuts was worrisome, coming as they did just as reliance on using the mail for casting election ballots was reaching new heights. With the coronavirus pandemic raging through the spring and summer, about half of all 2020 primary election voters in the U.S. had cast their ballots by mail, according to the National Vote at Home Institute, and fears over the possible spread of COVID-19 at polling places had spurred officials in several states to shift to 100% vote-by-mail elections for the first time.

DeJoy announced on August 18 that he was pausing service reductions until after Election Day, Nov. 3. He affirmed that announcement days later during congressional committee hearings that had been called to investigate, among other things, conflict-of-interest claims against this former board member of a transportation and shipping management company that has a business relationship with the USPS. Still, he refused to reverse many of the changes that have already taken place, and numerous reports suggested that the reductions did not stop when DeJoy claimed they did.

So, the House met in an unusual Saturday session on August 22 to pass Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s Delivering for America Act. The measure calls for granting the Postal Service its requested $25 billion in COVID-19 relief funds, and it seeks to return the agency’s service levels to where they were back in January as well as to temporarily block any further operational changes.

The Senate has no plans, however, either to take up that bill or to consider Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon’s separate USPS Fairness Act, a bill passed by the House in February that aims to repeal the prefunding provision.

“We can all do our part by calling up our senators and telling them we support the Postal Service and both of those House bills,” Stephenson said. “And we can keep on showing our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the postal unions by buying postage stamps and continuing to send cards, packages and more through the Post Office.”

Stephenson also echoed what the leaders of those other organizations have been saying in recent months. “Union solidarity demands that we help the people’s Post Office remain a public service,” he said. “Poll after poll shows that the people it belongs to fully support it. Let’s do what we can to help keep it going.”