In late July, workers at the United States Postal Service’s Flatbush station were informed that they were going to be the subjects of a test. They were spending too much time in the office, management said, and so new measures would be put in place to streamline the operation and reduce costs.
Instead of coming in from 7:30 or 8 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. as usual, workers were to arrive and leave an hour or more later. Instead of picking up the mail that had come in that morning, even waiting for late mail trucks, they were to go out only with what was left over from the night before. And instead of taking a little overtime to come back to the station and take out the mail that had come in during the day, carriers were to stay out and then go home when their hours were over.
The test was done in the name of efficiency, but the result was just the opposite. “We were leaving behind mail every day,” said Marjorie Desir, shop steward at the Flatbush station. Before, letters and packages sent within the city would arrive within two days at the latest. With the new changes, they would take up to a week.
Even priority mail was slowing down. “If it didn’t come to our station by the time we left for the street, you’re not getting it until the following day,” said Desir. “It was really frustrating.”
The test at Flatbush station was just one of countless similar cost-cutting measures implemented across the country by the USPS after Postmaster General Louis Dejoy took office in June, measures which have led to accusations of electoral sabotage.
As reports of delivery slowdowns and mass decommissioning of mailboxes spread this summer, President Donald Trump ramped up unfounded attacks on mail-in voting. This led to speculation that Trump was trying to influence the election by impeding mail-in ballots, which the president appeared to confirm in an interview with Fox News. After pressure from postal workers’ unions and Democratic leadership, Dejoy agreed to postpone these measures until after the election, but not to reverse them. Even with the current changes, the USPS has warned that some mail-in and absentee ballots may not arrive in time to be counted.
Workers at the Flatbush station didn’t have to wait until November to feel the impact of Dejoy’s cutbacks. The changes came without warning, even though management is supposed to give two weeks’ notice for any major schedule changes. “They didn’t give us the courtesy of really getting to adjust to the hours,” said Desir. Many Flatbush workers that were parents had scheduled childcare around their hours. Suddenly, they were scrambling to make new plans.
Desir noticed other regulations being broken as a result of the new procedures, like improper distribution of overtime. “Every single day, I was filing a grievance” against management, she said. John Cruz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers’ Brooklyn branch, was regularly receiving complaints from workers. “The morale in the station is bad. Employees don’t want to come to work,” said Cruz. “Management is treating employees in an obscene way.”
Desir said her coworkers were being stopped on the street by people asking when they would be getting their packages. There is no wondering why, said Cruz: “You’re delaying people’s medication. You’re delaying people’s bills. You’re delaying people’s checks.”
Cruz has worked for the USPS for 25 years. “This is the first time in history that I’ve ever seen anything like this,” he said. “Why destroy what we have, what’s been over 100 years working just fine?”
In addition to the test at Flatbush, four of Brooklyn’s 48 sorting machines were removed in mid-July. Tom McMenamy, president of the American Postal Workers Union, Brooklyn Local 251, said that even before COVID-19 they didn’t have enough machines to handle the mail they received. “Election and voting aside,” said McMenamy, “we would need that equipment to process mail.”
With the coronavirus, mail volume has dropped from 9 million pieces to about 2.5 million pieces. But McMenamy said he believes the mail will pick back up as the holiday season rolls around. “I’ve spoken to postal officials. I’ve asked them to take a let’s-wait-and-see approach,” he said. “If the mail volumes don’t come back in February, perhaps you have an argument.”
“But they’ve just written this off,” he said.
Since the changes were put into place, postal unions across the country put up a fight by filing local and national grievances. These efforts, combined with pressure by Democratic leadership, are what led Dejoy to temporarily suspend the widespread organizational changes until after the election.
Late last week, after Dejoy announced he would suspend the changes, workers at the Flatbush station learned that the test was over—for now. But Marjorie Desir said she wouldn’t be surprised if it picked right up again after the election.
Cruz stressed that this is not the end of the post office’s troubles. “The Trump administration assigned the fat cat in the room, which is Mr. Dejoy, to dismantle the post office little by little,” he said. Some conservatives, he noted, have long wished to get rid of the USPS and replace it with a privatized system. In 2006, the Bush administration put in place the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which forced the USPS to pre-fund all retirees 75 years in advance. In the Public Interest, a privatization research group, reports that this regulation has made it impossible for the organization to stay in the black, leaving it open to attacks on its apparent “insolvency.”
More recently, in 2018 the Trump administration put forth a proposal, which it quickly withdrew, to privatize the post office based on similar models in Belgium and the Netherlands. Cruz noted that privatization in Belgium caused postage rates to double and mail volume to decrease.
McMenamy said that DeJoy is using the coronavirus as a pretext to push the USPS toward failure. “He’s looking through the glasses of COVID-19,” McMenamy said. “You’re seeing the postal service at its worst mail volume in history with this pandemic. It’s almost like it’s an opportunity to attack.” Instead of making lasting changes based on what will likely be a temporary decline, the union leader said, “I think he should settle down and see what direction it’s going in.”
Majorie Desir said that these changes are coming from an organization that has lost its priorities. “The post office needs to think more of their customers,” she said. “They are looking at the clock, the amount of letters for the day, the amount of parcels for the day. They’re just looking at numbers of paper.”
McMenamy agreed, saying that those who want to run the USPS as a business misunderstand its fundamental purpose. “They’re doing it for a profit,” he said. “We’re a service.”
As for now, says John Cruz, regardless of what state the USPS is in come November, you should mail in your ballot as soon as you receive it. “A lot of us, what do we do? We put the mail aside, like ‘Wait, I still have time.'” Not this time: “You get it, you mail it in.”
Still, McMenamy was optimistic about the election. “In my opinion, the postal service is going to shine brightly,” he said. “It will be challenging, but postal workers are up to the challenge.”