Postal Service’s ‘every piece, every day’ mantra challenged by pandemic, fire, federal directives

A postal carrier delivers mail on Aug. 31 in Windom. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

For mail carriers in Minneapolis, neither snow, nor rain, nor pandemic, nor politics, nor burned stations can stay the couriers from swift completion of their appointed rounds. But they say it’s been a stressful year. 

“As long as they see us every day, they can feel like some normalcy is going on. … If we’re not panicking, they don’t have to,” said one Southwest mail carrier who declined to share his name without authorization.

It was a “kick in the gut” to see the Lake Street station burning on television, according to another mail carrier who spoke confidentially for the same reason and is now working out of the Loring station. Federal directives added stress this summer, he said. 

“The mantra is every piece, every day,” he said. “To get a different direction — people were like, ‘What’s going on?’”

Now his station is getting all mail out the door, he said, speaking after the public outcry in late August, but damage has been done, and he’s hearing the Postmaster General call for more changes after the election. 

“Who would have thought the postal service would be the flashpoint of the 2020 election?” he said. 

Doing the job

Sorting machines run all night, breaking down mail by destination at the main post office Downtown at 100 S. 1st St., according to Peggy Whitney, business agent of the American Postal Workers Union Minneapolis Area Local 125. Early each morning, trucks pick up the mail at the dock and distribute it to local postal offices. In the past, Whitney said, trucks might deviate from the schedule based on day-to-day circumstances and come back for mail left behind. But a July directive from Postmaster General Louis DeJoy meant trucks weren’t coming back and on occasion left without any mail at all.  

“Does it happen a lot? No. But if it’s your medicine and it happens once, it’s a big deal,” Whitney said.

The departure deadlines have loosened by a few minutes in recent days, she said. 

Mail carriers also face stricter deadlines to leave the station and start their routes, even if some mail isn’t ready to go, said a woman within the carrier craft who said she was not authorized to speak publicly.

“There still is mail that’s not going out like it used to,” she said. “There is still the concern that once the election is over, it’s going to crack down again, and it’s harmful to the American public and to our institution.”

Postal service operations became a national controversy following the appointment of DeJoy in mid-June. President Donald Trump has said “nothing loses money like the Post Office,” and he’s expressed confidence that DeJoy will make the postal service self-sustaining. Democrats in Congress have expressed alarm about a sharp uptick in delays and pointed to thousands of complaints since DeJoy arrived.  

At the Minneapolis main post office, two sorting machines are gone and two machines are unplugged and covered in a tarp, according to Whitney. At least two more machines were slated to be disassembled and reused as parts in other equipment, but DeJoy suspended further changes until after the election. 

“We can still process the same amount of mail. If we have a million letters today, we can still do a million letters. It just takes a little longer,” Whitney said. “But unfortunately we don’t get more time.”

Early in her career, Whitney sorted mail without barcodes, typing in zip codes at a rate of one letter per second.

“I’ve been in the post office 34 years. They are always replacing and removing and reconfiguring and updating,” she said.  

What’s different now, she said, is the amount of sorting equipment proposed for removal — 671 pieces nationwide — and the lack of analysis that typically goes into decommissioning equipment that costs from $50,000 to nearly $1 million. Machines selected for removal could process letters, flat mail and packages, she said. 

Extensive study typically goes into collection box removal as well, according to Whitney, as staff first measure the usage of each box over time and file a report before removal. 

“None of that occurred this time. They just started taking them out,” she said. 

It’s hard to parse why 12 mailboxes in Minneapolis were removed, however. The postal service removed collection boxes during the civil unrest to prevent burning or even terrorist acts, Whitney said. Mailboxes can be targets for explosives triggered when the lever is pulled down, and Whitney said they received word the boxes were a potential target. As of Aug. 25, all but five mailboxes appeared to be back, she said. 

Attorney General Keith Ellison joined a coalition of 14 states in a federal lawsuit challenging the operational changes. The suit said the Twin Cities’ sorting capacity was reportedly reduced by about 100,000-200,000 pieces of mail per hour. 

A local USPS spokesperson said Minnesota “mail is moving as it should and our operations are running normally.”

The states’ complaint said DeJoy donated more than $2 million to the Trump campaign and Republican causes since 2016 and he reportedly holds stock options in Amazon and equity in his former employer XPO Logistics, a transportation and logistics company that does business with USPS. DeJoy told Congress he sold all of his Amazon stock. The USPS inspector general is investigating DeJoy’s policy changes as well as potential conflicts of interest, according to the office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who requested the investigation. 

In congressional testimony on Aug. 21 and 24, DeJoy said mailbox and machine removal plans were in motion before he arrived, and although he’s since stopped it, he does not plan to reinstall machines. He said removal provides more room to process packages, a growing part of the postal service.

DeJoy said he aimed to save at least $1 billion by running trucks on schedule, but mail processing didn’t meet that schedule and caused delays. He said that goal still stands. 

“FedEx, UPS, everybody runs their trucks on time,” he said.

USPS receives no direct taxpayer funds, according to the Brookings Institution, and stamps and other service fees generate enough revenue to cover operating costs. Pension and retiree healthcare liabilities push the bottom line into the red. Unlike other employers, according to Brookings, Congress requires USPS to prefund retiree health costs out of current income, a requirement that was possible during strong performance in the early 2000s, but led to missing payments shortly after the requirement passed in 2006 due to digital competition and the recession.

DeJoy testified that the pandemic has hurt employee availability and decreased mail volume, and although package volume is up, packages are costly to handle. DeJoy said he supports $25 billion in federal funding to offset costs of the pandemic (the House passed a bill, the Senate hasn’t taken it up, and the president signaled he would veto it), but said that’s not a long-term fix. He’s still looking at “dramatic” changes to the postal service after the election, such as changes in pricing and service to Alaska. 

Election mail

In Minnesota’s Aug. 11 primary, roughly 60% voted absentee, more than tripling the mail-in ballots returned in the 2018 primary, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Out of 554,906 mail-in ballots, less than 1% were rejected because they were received late by mail. Secretary of State Steve Simon said he didn’t notice unusual delays in the mail at that time. 

“That doesn’t mean there weren’t delays. It means that voters seemed to be very smart about calculating those delays into their decisions about when to mail,” Simon said. 

And now Minnesota voters will have a built-in seven-day cushion. All Minnesota ballots postmarked through Election Day will still be counted, so long as they arrive within seven days of the election, based on a standing court order. And registered voters’ absentee ballots won’t require a witness signature, which Simon said is the most common issue in rejecting a ballot.*

Trump has expressed disdain for universal mail-in voting (while still supporting absentee voting), tweeting without evidence on May 28 that mail-in voting would lead to “massive fraud.” His administration has opposed a post office “bailout,” and he told Fox Business in mid-August that Democrats can’t have universal mail-in voting without that funding.

There is no evidence to suggest systemic bias toward either party due to mail-in ballots, nor evidence of widespread fraud in mail-in ballots, the Brookings Institution wrote in June. 

In congressional testimony, DeJoy recommended that voters request ballots at least 15 days before the election and return ballots at least 7 days before election day. 

“We deliver 433 million pieces of mail a day. So 150 million ballots, 160 million ballots over the course of a week is a very small amount,” he said in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, adding that more resources would be on standby. “Plus, mail volume is down 13%-14% this year. … If everyone complies with the mail process that we’ve been identifying, there will be absolutely no issue.”

Simon said DeJoy’s testimony concerns him, but it doesn’t change his guidance for voters to seriously consider voting from home. 

“Please order that ballot now. Don’t wait until October,” he said. “As soon as you’re comfortable with your choices, get that ballot in.”

Voters who order an absentee ballot can still change their minds and vote in person at the polls. Or if they’re skittish about the mail, they can hand-deliver an absentee ballot to the election office that sent their ballot. Early voting starts Sept. 18. 

Temporary post office

A view inside the post office at 31st & 1st, which was destroyed during the unrest in late May. Photo by Lorie Shaull

Minneapolis post offices at 110 E. 31st St. and 3033 27th Ave. S. burned during the unrest, rendering both structures unusable. USPS plans to rebuild at both locations in the next 12-24 months, according to the city, but in the meantime, Minneapolis has agreed to lease about half of the Kmart building and loading dock at Lake & Nicollet to USPS.

Instead of demolishing Kmart in late 2020 as planned, the City Council approved a lease in effect Aug. 1 allowing USPS to rent the western half of the building for about $30,400 per month for up to two years. 

USPS declined to comment, saying the terms of the lease are not finalized. 

A mobile post office is no longer onsite at Lake & Nicollet, and USPS is referring Lake Street station customers and P.O. boxes to the Loring station at 18 N. 12th St.

Whitney said the unrest has a lingering impact on letter carriers who are now working at more congested stations, and she believes 23 letter carrier vehicles were destroyed during the unrest. Staff tried to move some of the expensive vehicles, but didn’t get them all. 

“One of them got stolen and was seen on video joyriding around,” she said. “I think it’s just another factor in the overall delay of mail.”

A Southwest mail carrier said he’s anxious to get back into the neighborhood when a temporary post office opens. He’s appreciated all the support from residents and shopkeepers along his route who have supplied him with homemade masks, candy and water refills. 

“I’m still proud to be a letter carrier,” another postal worker said. “Actually, we’re kind of the darlings of America right now. People are really looking out for us — don’t mess with the mailman.”

*Non-registered voters still need a witness, to indicate their proof of residence.