This week, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy pulled back on a host of cost-saving measures at the U.S. Postal Service after a public outcry over delivery delays and the potential to upset mail-in voting come November. Of particular concern was the removal of hundreds of mail-sorting machines.
But Postal Service officials and industry insiders say the removals were part of a long-range plan, one that reflects Americans’ diminishing use for letters and growing reliance on package delivery.
The 671 machines slated for removal were scattered across 49 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The removals correlated closely with population: States with more people and, hence, a larger USPS footprint had more machines taken out. California had the greatest number, 76, followed by Florida (59), Texas (58) New York (52) and Ohio (34). Alaska is the only state with no machines on the list.
According to data provided by the union, 618 of the 671 machines were to be disconnected by Aug. 1.
While the Postmaster General’s announcement gave no indication whether previously disconnected machines were to be reinstated, emails obtained by The Washington Post show that Kevin Couch, a director of maintenance operations at the USPS, sent word to the agency’s maintenance managers on Tuesday afternoon that “they are not to reconnect/reinstall machines that have previously been disconnected without approval from HQ Maintenance, no matter what direction they are getting from their plant manager.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, after speaking with DeJoy on Wednesday, said in a statement that he “frankly admitted that he had no intention of replacing the sorting machines, blue mailboxes and other key mail infrastructure that have been removed.” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, meanwhile, has asked the postmaster general for a “specific, written document” that itemized the effects of DeJoy’s decision and whether machines would be reinstated.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., reporter Heather Walker with WOOD-TV said that sorting machines were still being dismantled as of Wednesday morning, but the work had stopped by the afternoon.
Data published in USPS reports submitted annually to the Postal Regulatory Commission show the agency typically decommissions dozens, sometimes hundreds, of machines each year. However, they also show that this year’s reductions in sorting capacity are larger than they were in prior years.
In 2018, for instance, the agency decommissioned about 3 percent of its Delivery Bar Code Sorters, or 125 machines. In 2019, it was 5 percent, or 186 machines. The 671 on this year’s list amounted to about 13 percent.
The agency “routinely moves equipment around its network as necessary to match changing mail and package volumes,” the Postal Service said in a statement. “Package volume is up, but mail volume continues to decline.”
The machines can label and sort tens of thousands of letters, bills and ballots, each hour. They include:
- Facer Canceller Systems, which label incoming mail with bar codes that allow workers to track items through processing.
- Bar Code Sorters, among the most common machines, sort labeled letter-size mail into Zip codes and even into delivery sequence for letter carriers.
- The Flat Sorting Machines and Flat Sequencing Machines, or FSS’s, perform similar tasks on larger-size paper mail, though they have run into trouble. A 2018 report by the Postal Service inspector general found that a decline in “flat” mail — paper mail larger than letter-size envelopes — made it difficult for the agency to hit its goals. Some mail handlers also say they find the expensive machines unreliable and prefer to sort flats by hand.
Some postal workers worry that losing some of the machines could spell delays.
“Those machines have done more to create efficiency than any other machine in the past couple decades,” said one letter carrier in Los Angeles, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal. “If the mail volumes have declined enough to justify [removals], then, fine, but you’ve also created less room for error if some of these machines break down.
“And these machines are old,” the carrier said. “I have to imagine you’re creating a pretty slim margin for error if you’re removing machines, even if mail volumes have decreased.”
The Postal Service has been streamlining its sorting equipment since the 2000s, when mail volume began to decline. The machine cuts often coincide with facility consolidations. A 2018 report from the Postal Service inspector general found that a “network rationalization plan” that involved facility consolidations and machine removals saved the agency $91 million, a hefty savings, but short of the $1.6 billion projected. The equipment reductions did, however, create valuable floor space for package processing.
Mailing groups have hailed the reductions, saying the Postal Service has long held onto excess capacity that has slowed operations and inflated the cost of service.
“As a general rule, our members believe that the Postal Service should be doing everything it can to encourage entry of commercial mail as deep into its network as it can, and to bypass postal operations to the maximum extent possible,” said Michael Plunkett, president and chief executive of PostCom, a national postal commerce advocacy group. “The more times the Postal Service has to handle it, the longer it stays in the Postal Service and network, then the more expensive it is. And honestly, the lower the service quality, the more times the Postal Service has to handle a piece of mail.”
But union officials say the middle of a pandemic is the wrong time to remove equipment. Previous cuts mean the remaining ones are pressed into service more often and routinely need maintenance that isn’t always regularly performed.
“I’m always hearing from mechanics and technicians all over the country that they’ve cut down on maintenance windows,” said Randy Zelnick, a retired USPS machine technician who runs the 21st Century Postal Worker blog. “And the demands come down on them. The bosses will say, ‘Get these machines back up and running.’ Well, if they let them do the maintenance, it never would have broken down. But it’s their right to mismanage.
“The sad part is that we have a ton of pride of ownership,” he added. “We have mechanics who get assigned a few machines, and they like to keep them humming.”