-Mail delays at the U.S. Postal Service have caused alarm in the run-up to a high-stakes general election that will see an unprecedented level of mail-in voting due to COVID-19, but USPS leaders and union officials say the agency is prepared to handle election mail and the real causes of the delays have been widely misunderstood.
Reports of blue collection boxes and mail sorting machines being removed -- coming as President Donald Trump has railed against mail-in voting -- have stoked fears of politically motivated changes under new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major GOP donor. But postal workers and union officials across Washington say the slowdown is the result of three other factors: a flood of packages, pandemic-related staffing problems and a move by DeJoy to cut down on late and extra truck trips.
The delays are not in dispute. Initially slow to respond to calls for transparency, on Aug. 31 DeJoy sent lawmakers charts showing that the on-time delivery rate had hovered around 90% from mid-March until early July, when it fell sharply to below 80%. That means roughly one in five pieces of first-class mail took more than five days to reach its destination, and more than 10 days for bulk-rate marketing mail.
That drop in on-time delivery coincided, DeJoy admitted to lawmakers, with a seemingly straightforward change he made shortly after taking over the top job to minimize trucks making late and extra trips carrying mail between USPS facilities.
On June 16, DeJoy's second day on the job, the USPS Office of Inspector General published a report that found about 20% of truck trips in fiscal year 2019 left late. Those late departures, the overtime they caused and other inefficiencies led to more than $4 billion in excess costs, the OIG report found.
DeJoy, who had never worked for the Postal Service but for years ran a trucking and logistics company, told House and Senate committees in late August he saw running trucks on time as "a fundamental premise of how the whole mail network is put together."
"The change I made," DeJoy said in an Aug. 24 hearing, "was (to) ask the team to run the trucks on time and mitigate extra trips based on a review of an OIG audit that was absolutely astonishing in the amount of money we were spending and the number of late trips and extra trips we were running."
The charts DeJoy presented to Congress show steep declines starting in early July in the number of delayed and additional trips, but the on-time delivery rates for first-class mail, marketing mail and periodicals -- such as newspapers and magazines -- all fell around that same time.
Ryan Harris, Washington state president of the American Postal Workers Union, said those delays are the result of trucks leaving before all the mail in a plant has been processed due to delays in other locations, a sorting machine needing repairs or simply day-to-day fluctuations in mail volume.
"Under the new guidelines, if the truck isn't loaded with mail, it goes out whether the mail's there or not," Harris said. "The problem we're having is the trucks don't match up to the operations of the scheduling of the machines' run time."
Harris said DeJoy's change makes sense in theory and will likely save money, but it fails to account for the flexibility on which USPS has long relied. Cutting down on late trips means mail that before may have been delayed by 15 minutes now has to wait hours for the next truck, and fewer extra trips means that left-behind mail piles up.
"A lot of the trucks are going out with little to no mail," he said. "Then they have to put it on the next truck, and the next truck may have too much mail, so that's where the backlog is coming up, if there's no extra trucks and all the trucks must run on time."
DeJoy told lawmakers the on-time delivery rates would bounce back as postal workers adjusted to the new orders, though he said the recovery was taking longer than he had expected. The charts show an uptick in on-time deliveries starting in mid-August, but the trend lines stop at Aug. 22 and the USPS has not released more recent numbers.
But the effort to enforce on-time truck departures didn't happen in a vacuum. It came as the USPS was contending with two long-running trends, both accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic: a change in the types of mail the agency handles and a workforce that's stretched thin and increasingly reliant on overtime.
The volume of first-class mail, the Postal Service's most profitable product, has been falling for decades. After peaking at more than 103 billion pieces in 2001, first-class mail volume has dropped by nearly half to less than 55 billion in 2019,