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'Vote early': DeJoy won't replace removed mail sorting machines, collection boxes

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told federal lawmakers Friday that while the U.S. Postal Service halted the removal of collection boxes and mail sorting machines, he had no plans to replace those that have been removed in recent weeks. 

In a hearing Friday that stretched more than two hours, DeJoy said many of the changes were authorized before he was sworn in in June but halted after an outcry of concerns regarding the removals' impact on election mail. 

But DeJoy told U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, the already-removed sorting machines would not be returned to the post offices. 

"There’s no intention to do that; they're not needed, sir," DeJoy told Peters in a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing. He said the machines run at about 35% utilization. 

"Mail volume is dropping very rapidly, especially during the COVID crisis," he said. 

Grilled by Peters, DeJoy denied having any contact with Trump or his campaign, besides a congratulations from the president when he took on his new role. 

He said claims the mail delays or the removals of the machines were politically motivated were "outrageous" and promised to double efforts to deliver all election mail as if it were first class. 

"We will deploy processes and procedures that advance any election mail, in some cases ahead of first-class mail," said DeJoy, assuring Peters the rates for election mail would not increase.

Peters criticized DeJoy during the hearing, noting he'd received more than 7,500 complaints in the week since he announced an investigation into postal service delays. 

Postal workers are essential workers who perform their duties with "professionalism" and "integrity" amid mounting challenges in recent years, the Michigan senator said.

"The Postal Service has always delivered, but, Mr. DeJoy, I don't think you have," Peters said. "You have not delivered in this brief tenure so far. ... You have undermined one of our nation's most trusted institutions and wreaked havoc on families, on veterans, seniors, rural communities and on people all across our country."

Peters also accused DeJoy of eliminating overtime. The postmaster general pushed back and argued the postal service was at 13% overtime rate before he came into office and is currently at the same rate.

The hearing featured questions from other committee members, with some Republicans praising DeJoy's actions and Democrats largely criticizing his response.

DeJoy said the postal service is expected to be self-sustaining yet it has an enormous unfunded liability, a $9 billion shortfall this year and increased burdens due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It lost $6.7 billion in the first half of the year as the service reported continued drops in first-class and business mail that weren't offset by an over-50% increase in package deliveries.

Contributing to delays in mail delivery is the employee availability average, which has dropped about 4% across the nation and more so in urban areas where the "intimidation of the coronavirus" is greater, he said.

In COVID-19 hot spots such as Philadelphia or Detroit, employee availability has dropped 20% to 25%.

The USPS delivers 433 million pieces of mail a day and had "adequate capacity" to handle the maximum 150 million ballots that could come through the mail over a week, DeJoy said.

With mail volumes down, the postal service has "additional resources on standby" to handle any upticks.

Even so, DeJoy said, "the general message here is vote early."

Over the past 10 years, the post office has removed about 35,000 blue collection boxes and 700 were removed in June, July and August before DeJoy halted the removals. 

The letters by the Postal Service's general counsel sent to Michigan and 45 other states warning them that the deadlines for mailing ballots isn't in sync with current USPS delivery times aren't unique to 2020. 

"This was not a change from anything that we have done in previous years," DeJoy said. "It was just more detail and more emphasis put on it, partly because of the expected rise in vote by mail and also the pandemic.”

The Michigan Republican Party and the campaign of Peters' challenger, John James, criticized Peters' scrutiny of the issues at the postal office, noting he was aware of problems with the service as early as 2016. 

At that time, during a committee hearing on USPS challenges, Peters said the problems should be resolved in the "months ahead — not years."

Friday's hearing came after Michigan union leaders within the U.S. Postal Service this week sounded alarms about policy changes that one official described as a "conscious decision to delay mail." 

The removal of at least eight mail sorting machines in Detroit, Pontiac and Grand Rapids facilities have caused the loss of sorting more than 270,000 pieces of mail per hour, according to union officials. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com