Michigan union chiefs: USPS delaying mail by removing machines, shifting policies

Southfield — Michigan union leaders within the U.S. Postal Service are sounding alarms about policy changes that one official describes as a "conscious decision to delay mail" as a political showdown brews in Washington, D.C.

The removal of at least eight mail sorting machines in Detroit, Pontiac and Grand Rapids facilities are causing the loss of sorting more than 270,000 pieces of mail per hour, according to union officials from around the state. The planned removal of another seven machines in West Michigan and Pontiac would reduce mail sorting capability by another 200,000 or more pieces of mail per hour, union officials said. 

The warnings came as a national controversy ignited over funding for the Postal Service and fears President Donald Trump is seeking to hobble the agency's ability to process what is likely to be a huge volume of mail-in ballots. Trump has publicly voiced concerns about mail-in voting this fall as he seeks reelection, and Democrats have responded with legislation and lawsuits in a bid to blunt Postal Service cuts.

Roscoe Woods, president, American Postal Workers Union, speaks during a news conference at the Main Southfield Post office on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

In a bid to calm the worries, the U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday suspended the operational changes, such as removing mail processing equipment, until after the November election, said Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who took his job in June. Many of the criticized moves were the result of longstanding "efforts that predate my arrival at the Postal Service," he said in a Tuesday statement.

“To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded,” DeJoy said. 

Prior to the suspension, two delivery bar code sorting machines — which combined can sift through 60,000 pieces of mail per hour — were removed from a large Pontiac distribution center, Roscoe Woods Jr., president of Southeast Michigan's American Postal Workers Union Local 480-481, told The Detroit News on Monday.

Two more bar code machines were in the process of being moved, while two high-speed flat sorters were slated for removal, Woods said. APWU Local 480-481 represents workers at the Pontiac distribution center, which sorts mail for an area bounded by Toledo, Ohio, to the south, Jackson to the west and Saginaw to the north.

It's unclear whether any of those machines in Michigan will still be removed. Representatives of the Postal Service in Michigan did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

In an unprecedented move, four sorting machines were removed from a Detroit facility, said Keith Combs, president of the APWU’s Detroit District Area Local. Each machine could sort 35,000 pieces of mail per hour, he said. 

The removal of machines from the George W. Young Post Office in downtown Detroit occurred 30 to 40 days ago, said Combs, who also expressed concern about work rule changes described as cost-saving measures.

“That’s a huge number to take out right before an election, an election that may require” significant vote-by-mail due to the pandemic, he said. 

Two delivery bar code sorters also have been removed from a Grand Rapids facility with three more scheduled to come out, said Amy Puhalski, president of American Postal Workers Union Local 281 in West Michigan. Those sorters can each run up to 36,000 pieces of mail per hour.

"We have a mandate to meet our delivery standards," Woods said. "But by reducing the number of machines, you cripple that ability."

"Most of the (union) presidents across the country, especially here in Michigan, have experienced what are supposed to be cost-cutting events that are actually just harming the Postal Service and the community it serves," Combs said.

The U.S. Postal Service 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. 

DeJoy is scheduled to answer questions about his moves when he testifies Friday before the Senate Homeland Security committee, where ranking Democrat Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township has criticized his changes. He is also set to face the U.S. House Oversight Committee on Monday.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel joined 13 other states Tuesday in a lawsuit that argues the Postal Service changes are unlawful and threaten the timely delivery of mail. Such operational shifts that affect nationwide mail service have to be submitted to the Postal Regulatory Commission and allow for public comment, Nessel's office said.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House plans to vote Saturday on legislation aimed at restoring service levels at the Postal Service.

Keith Combs, president, American Postal Workers Union, Detroit District, during a news conference at the Main Southfield Post office on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

In a Tuesday press conference, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, called for DeJoy to resign, labeling him a “partisan hack unwilling to respect USPS’s mission.” Lawrence is a former Postal Service worker.

Some Republicans have accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, of politicizing an institution that is hemorrhaging billions of dollars and needs reform.

DeJoy, who is a donor to Trump's campaign, has disputed reports that his agency is slowing down election mail or any other mail. Despite an expected surge in mail-in ballots in the fall, "we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards," he reiterated in a Tuesday statement. 

Woods said he was informed shortly after DeJoy took over of new rules, such as new sorting techniques that failed to account for surges in volume and trucks no longer being permitted to leave the facility late, even if all of the mail had not yet been loaded.

"They've made a conscious decision to delay the mail under the guise of reducing overtime," he said. In light of DeJoy's latest suspension of changes, Woods said he would like the Postal Service to go further and restore removed machinery.

After DeJoy took office, policies were implemented to reduce overtime and mandate carriers leave for their routes at certain times, causing delays in mail deliveries, said Michael Mize, president of the Michigan Postal Workers Union.

"What we’re seeing right now is a direct attack on the Postal Service and what we do," said Mize, who's worked for the service for more than two decades.

Asked Monday about Postal Service concerns, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said White House officials have already said they’re looking at $10 billion, “if not even more,” in additional funding to boost the service. 

The situation doesn’t constitute the type of emergency Pelosi is “trying to make this out to be," he said.  

“This is not about policy,” Huizenga said of the House speaker. “This is all about politics. At the end of the day, that is how she operates and that is what she knows best.”

Postal Service's defense

The beleaguered Postal Service lost $2.2 billion in the three months that ended in June after a $4.5 billion loss in the first quarter. It is piling up financial losses during the coronavirus pandemic that officials warn could top $20 billion over two years.

The pandemic has resulted in a steep drop in letter volume, while the Postal Service's package delivery volume has soared and led to price increases. Costs also have increased significantly to pay for personal protective equipment and replace workers who got sick or chose to stay home over fear of the virus, DeJoy has said. 

In his 30-year career, Local 480-481's Woods said similar reductions in letter volume have resulted in equipment being temporarily mothballed, but not removed in such a manner.

"We've seen staffing realignments. We've seen machines come. We've seen machines go," he said. "But never I have seen management implement changes that I think everybody understood immediately we were going to fail and it was going to cause a backup of the mail like we've never seen."

Louis DeJoy

In June, the American Postal Workers Union’s National Executive Board endorsed Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president, citing Biden's support of unions and his opposition to postal privatization.

The Postal Service had defended the removal or movement of other mail-sorting machines reported around the country.

The service "routinely moves equipment around its network as necessary to match changing mail and package volumes. Package volume is up, but mail volume continues to decline. Adapting our processing infrastructure to the current volumes will ensure more efficient, cost-effective operations and better service for our customers," according to a U.S. Postal Service statement. 

A sign is pictured outside a U.S. Postal Service office in Holt.

Ballot deliveries at risk

The U.S. Postal Service has warned Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and election officials in other states that mail delivery timelines pose "significant risk" to ballots sent too close to Election Day and that could lead to their disqualification. USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall advised Benson that election officials keep delivery times in mind when sending election mail to voters and when informing voters of transit times for mail-in ballots so they are returned in time. 

More than 6,400 of Michigan's 10,600 absentee ballots rejected Aug. 4 were turned away because they arrived after Election Day, Benson's office said Friday. Another 2,225 ballots were discarded because there was no signature on the envelope; 1,111 were rejected because the voter moved; and 846 were not accepted because the voter was dead, according to her office. 

On Tuesday, Lawrence complained that DeJoy "has quickly shown that he is nothing more than an ineffective and truly unqualified leader who only cares about satisfying President Trump’s wishes to undermine the Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots and sabotage the upcoming election."

If the postmaster general doesn't resign, the Postal Service's Board of Governors should remove him, said Lawrence, who was joined at the press conference outside a Southfield post office by Democratic U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, Dan Kildee of Flint Township and Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence calls on the reversal of policies that have worsened the crisis facing the U.S. Postal Service by President Trump during a news conference with fellow Representative Dan Kildee at the Main Southfield Post office on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Tlaib took aim at Trump's relationship with DeJoy, saying: "The billionaire mega-donor he appointed ... is doing everything he can to prevent postal workers from processing mail, sorting ballots and delivering life-saving medications to our seniors and loved ones."

The Trump administration's efforts to slow mail service ahead of the November election are the kinds of thing “you would expect in a third-world dictatorship,” Kildee said in a Monday interview. 

During a Fox Business interview last week, Trump said he was blocking a $25 billion emergency cash infusion sought by the Postal Service and a Democratic plan for $3.6 billion in additional election money. The president has voiced concerns that mail-in voting could hurt his reelection chances, and the money for the Postal Service is intended to help with processing an increase in mail-in ballots.

“This is the kind of thing that you would expect Putin to do or some despot to do to try to manipulate the mail system in order to minimize people’s access to the ballot,” said Kildee, referring to Russia's leader.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told reporters Monday that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin already has offered in talks with Pelosi up to $10 billion to ensure the Postal Service is on firm footing going into the November election.

For two or three months, most of the calls coming to his congressional offices were about unemployment benefits or stimulus checks, Kildee said. Now, the greatest number of calls is about the Postal Service, he said.

People are realizing that delays with their mail aren’t just a problem with their local letter carrier, Kildee said: “They are now seeing this is part of something that is bigger and more sinister."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, tweeted Monday that Democrats "are pushing conspiracy theories about the USPS to undermine faith in the election and district from their own failures. Whether Americans choose to vote in-person or vote absentee, I have full confidence in the integrity of our electoral process.”


Twitter: @JGrzelewski