A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Daily Yonder: How the U.S. Postal Service, a ‘lifeline to rural America,’ became the center of a federal frenzy


By Isabelle Lee and Mikhal Ben-Joseph
Special to KyForward

What is widely seen as America’s favorite federal agency has become the new focal point of friction between Democrats and Republicans ever since President Trump appointed Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service (USPS) on June 15. In the middle of the debate are 60 million rural Americans who advocates say have a lot riding on the agency’s survival.

Just weeks into his position, DeJoy implemented changes in procedures that raised eyebrows within and outside the agency on whether the USPS will be able to deliver the expected high volumes of mailed ballots on time for the November election.

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers dry clothes and prepare lunch outside the post office in Caratunk, Maine. “If service is affected, it’s going to be particularly felt in the most difficult and most expensive places to reach, which is rural America anywhere you want to look,” said Arthur Sackler, Manager of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service. (AP Photo by Robert F. Bukaty, via The Daily Yonder)

These include shortening retail hours at some post offices, cutting overtime for postal workers, removing several high-speed letter sorters, closing select mail processing facilities altogether, and reorganizing the Postal Service leadership — many of whom have been with the agency for more than two decades— among others.

The actions of DeJoy, a Republican mega-donor, and a Trump ally, have been interpreted by many Democrats as an attempt to sabotage the election in concert with President Trump, who has himself admitted to wanting to limit funding that could help mail-in voting.

“[Trump] used us to make sure everybody got their money,” said Joe Shevlin, referring to the stimulus checks people received early on in the pandemic. “But he doesn’t want people to vote by mail.”

Shevlin, who has been a letter carrier from Fair Haven, a small town in New Jersey, for the past 35 years, believes DeJoy’s appointment is purely political and will have ramifications, especially for rural post offices.

“I can retire anytime,” he said. “But my one last fight is to save the post office itself.”

Serving Rural America

For Arthur Sackler, manager of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, the potential consequences of these changes under DeJoy are most concerning for rural communities, especially because there aren’t many delivery alternatives in far-flung places.

“If service is affected, it’s going to be particularly felt in the most difficult and most expensive places to reach, which is rural America anywhere you want to look,” said Sackler.

Sackler added that rural businesses trying to get by during these difficult times mean reliable shipping is even more critical.

“You can make an argument that the postal service has become even more invaluable to rural America in light of the spread of those online businesses, and intensified even further because of the effects of Covid… the postal service [is] a true lifeline to rural America and to small businesses.”

— Arthur Sackler, manager of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service

“[Rural businesses use] the postal system because the competitors won’t come out to places that are so lightly populated, because they can’t make a buck doing that. Only the postal service does it,” Sackler explained.

“You can make an argument that the postal service has become even more invaluable to rural America in light of the spread of those online businesses, and intensified even further because of the effects of Covid… the postal service [is] a true lifeline to rural America and to small businesses.”

Mike Bates, President of the American Postal Workers Union Des Moines Area Local, also emphasized the importance rural post offices play in their communities.

“There is what we call “the last mile,” he explained. “Amazon, UPS, FedEx, we deliver 40 percent of their mail because it is not profitable for them to deliver in small towns.”

The lack of reliable internet connectivity in many rural areas also makes mail more crucial despite arguments that the agency is becoming more obsolete.

Postal service employees, who are required to take an oath of office before beginning their employment, take their responsibility to serve their communities seriously, especially in rural areas.

“We treat everybody’s mail like it’s ours,” Bates said.

An Agency Stuck in the Red

DeJoy, however, defended his changes as part of his plan to help the agency achieve desperately needed financial stability. The USPS, with its more than 600,000 employees, has been running in the red since a 2006 Congressional Act forced the agency to pre-fund retiree benefits 75 years in advance.

Last year alone, the venerated agency lost $9 billion. And while package shipping volume has slightly increased during the pandemic, the agency still continues to struggle financially.

Shevlin, however, insists that the agency was never meant to operate as a business. Instead, it is a public service.

Despite the financial strain exacerbated by the pandemic, the USPS has still delivered mail and parcels to the most remote of locations, while facing operational challenges and suffering one of the highest Covid-19 deaths compared to other federal agencies.

Despite the financial strain exacerbated by the pandemic, the USPS has still delivered mail and parcels to the most remote of locations, while facing operational challenges and suffering one of the highest Covid-19 deaths compared to other federal agencies.

In June, the agency delivered 93.7% of first-class mail packages without delay, in step with UPS or FedEx according to data from ShipMatrix, a software provider analyzing shipping data, at more affordable costs.

Still, Trump has resisted some efforts to offer the agency more funding. On August 13, the president, who has publicly launched a relentless campaign against vote-by-mail elections, admitted that he does not want the agency to be included in any coronavirus relief package to suppress mail-in voting. He has also suggested that the USPS could fix its problems by raising prices on packages it delivers.

Democrats, for their part, asserted that without funding, the Postal Service could run out of operating cash by fall. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on August 16 said she would call the House back from its summer recess for a vote on legislation to block changes in the USPS, at least until January 1, 2021, or the end of the pandemic.

But on August 18, DeJoy suspended his new policies until after the November 3 election, just as at least 20 Democratic attorneys general announced plans to file federal lawsuits. DeJoy is slated to appear before the Senate on August 21st and before the House Oversight Committee next week.

“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall. Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards,” said DeJoy in a statement.

“I am announcing today the expansion of our current leadership taskforce on election mail to enhance our ongoing work and partnership with state and local election officials in jurisdictions throughout the country,” he added. “Because of the unprecedented demands of the 2020 election, this task force will help ensure that election officials and voters are well informed and fully supported by the Postal Service.”

On August 21, DeJoy, testifying before the Senate, said the agency will continue to prioritize ballots over mail. He defended his previous actions and told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he was not trying to meddle with the elections. “The insinuation is quite frankly outrageous,” he said.

But according to a statement from Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, DeJoy “acted outside of his authority to implement changes to the postal system, and did not follow the proper procedures under federal law.”

It’s Not All Politics

Despite concerns that the now-suspended changes to the agency were meant to disenfranchise voters for the upcoming presidential election where more than 80 million are expected to cast their ballots via mail, for some, these adjustments were implemented purely for business.

“It’s probably not political,” said John Bruce Smith, a retired mail letter carrier from Hazard, Kentucky, who worked for the agency for 34 years. “People were saying he was a Trump appointee because he was a big donor, but if you look at the history of postmaster generals, most were all big donors and friends.”

Smith added that the postmaster general position is a sinecure. He pointed out that the position is not even included in the line of presidential succession as it is not a Cabinet post.

With roots tracing back to 1775, the USPS has consistently topped the favorability list in Pew Research Center’s surveys of public views of government agencies. In April 2020, 91 percent of Americans — equal 91% shares of Democrats and Republicans – had a favorable view of the USPS, a rating higher than any other federal agency.

With roots tracing back to 1775, the USPS has consistently topped the favorability list in Pew Research Center’s surveys of public views of government agencies. In April 2020, 91 percent of Americans — equal 91% shares of Democrats and Republicans – had a favorable view of the USPS, a rating higher than any other federal agency.

DeJoy’s appointment, however, was met with skepticism due in large part to his background. The 63-year-old is only one out of the handful of postmaster generals coming from the private sector since 1971.

Apart from that, DeJoy was the former chief executive officer of New Breed Logistics, a national logistics provider that had contracts with the USPS among others. In 2014, with over 7,000 employees, he sold the company for $615 million, according to Business North Carolina.

Many have speculated that DeJoy could be the key Trump is looking for to fulfill his goal of privatizing the agency. The current administrations brought USPS under the Department of the Treasury —a move many viewed as a possible step bringing the service from public to private ownership.

But whatever the motivation is behind the actions, the timing is what some may find questionable. Bates said that two delivery bar code sorter machines, a mail sorting machine that can sort approximately 36,000 pieces per hour, were taken out in July. This leaves the Des Moines Iowa processing and distribution Center with just 15.

“To take machines out based on mail volumes during the pandemic is kind of ridiculous,” said Bates. “I have been working at the postal service for 27 years. We process mail, that’s what we do for a living and we take pride in doing that. It really strikes our core values to delay anybody’s mail.”

Bates said that while it is true the mail volume largely decreased due to the pandemic, he expects it to pick up in the fall as states open up.

“We have had instances of delayed mail. There have been drastic cuts in overtime. Trucks have to go out on time regardless of whether there’s mail loaded on that truck,” said Bates. “Personally what scares me the most, especially for rural America, is for [DeJoy] to shut the post offices down completely.”

Rural carriers admit their jobs are not easy especially with the tough terrains they plow through. But many, like Smith, who served the town of 5,000 people he grew up in and delivered mail to people he personally knew, it was a rewarding job.

“I enjoyed being outside working,” he said, “seeing all the people and all the kids grow.”

Still, no matter what happens in the federal frenzy over funding and policies, the relationship between the USPS and the communities it serves will likely remain strong.

“Go into any community where the postal service has tried to close the postal office, and you’ve got a beehive of people who are angry about that, and their members of congress hear about that, so it’s very difficult to close facilities,” Arthur Sackler from Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service said. “Communities’ identities are tied up in their local post office.”

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Yonder. It is reprinted with permission.


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