The United States Postal Service is removing mail sorting machines from facilities around the country without any official explanation or reason given, Motherboard has learned through interviews with postal workers and union officials. In many cases, these are the same machines that would be tasked with sorting ballots, calling into question promises made by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that the USPS has “ample capacity” to handle the predicted surge in mail-in ballots.
Motherboard identified 19 mail sorting machines from five processing facilities across the U.S. that either have already been removed or are scheduled to be in the near future. But the Postal Service operates hundreds of distribution facilities around the country, so it is not clear precisely how many machines are getting removed and for what purpose.
Even to local union officials, USPS has not announced any policy, explained why they are doing this, what will happen to the machines and the workers who use them. Nor has management provided a rationale for dismantling and removing the machines from the facility rather than merely not operating them when they’re not needed.
“I’m not sure you’re going to find an answer for why [the machines being removed] makes sense,” said Iowa Postal Workers Union President Kimberly Karol, “because we haven’t figured that out either.”
The postal workers Motherboard spoke to said having machines removed, replaced, or modified is nothing new, but this time it seems to be more widespread, include a larger number of machines at their respective facility, and potentially impacts the facility’s ability to process large numbers of mail, including ballots, in a short time span.
“Look at it this way: Your local grocery store was forced to cut 1/3 of its cash-out lines, but management expected the same productivity, quality, and speed for the customer,” said an employee at a Buffalo distribution facility, which they said is set to lose six out of 21 mail sorting machines. “It’s just never going to happen.”
After publication, USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told Motherboard, “The Postal 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.”
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While the consequences of this new policy are mostly unclear for now, it neatly fits with the sudden, opaque, and drastic changes made by DeJoy, a longtime Republican fundraiser and Trump donor, in the less than two months he’s been postmaster general. Like his other changes, including the curtailing of overtime resulting in the widespread mail delays and sudden reorganization of the entire USPS, it is possible to see some semblance of corporate logic while second-guessing the decision to make drastic changes on the eve of the presidential election in which the USPS will play a critical role.
Most of the machines being dismantled in the facilities Motherboard identified are delivery bar code sorters (DBCS), into which letters, postcards and similarly sized mail (but not magazines and large envelopes, which are categorized as “flats” and sorted differently) are fed. The DBCS sorts the mail into one of hundreds of “stackers,” a slot about a foot long. Each slot is for a different destination, be it another post office or distribution facility.
A DBCS typically requires two workers to operate: one to feed the mail into the machine, and the other to collect the mail from the stackers and put them in the appropriate bins for transport. Running at peak efficiency, the machines can sort about 35,000 pieces of mail per hour, a remarkable and oddly mesmerizing feat. But during times of short staffing or low mail volume—both of which have occurred during COVID—DBCSs can be run with one and a half or even just a single worker, albeit less productively.
Marketing mail is down more than 15 percent through June of this year compared to last year. While this is a much steeper drop than recent years, it is continuing a decade-long trend of mail volume decline for everything but packages. In other words, DBCSs have less mail to sort than they ever have before and it’s far from clear how much of that mail is ever coming back. So it stands to reason the USPS might not need as many of them.
The postal workers interviewed by Motherboard understood this, and in some cases even made the argument some DBCS machines might be of better use at other facilities. But they had other concerns about removing the machines altogether. If something goes wrong with the DBCSs they have left, there are fewer machines to pick up the slack.
“When you take out one of the machines, it takes away our ability to respond to unforeseen things that may happen,” said Karol, who added that although her facility in Waterloo will have other DBCSs, having fewer of them “limits our ability to respond” by making adjustments and moving mail around.
Paul McKenna, president of Milwaukee Area Local 3 of the American Postal Workers Union, said that some of the DBCSs staying will have about 50 more stackers added to them, meaning the machines can sort mail to a larger number of destinations. This will help alleviate the pressure during high mail volume periods like the Christmas rush—when there is simply more mail in general to all places—as well as provide advantages during lower-volume periods like the dead of summer. But it won’t necessarily help the unique challenge of election mail. In that case, the mail surge stays local.
Some letter carriers and distribution facility employees told Motherboard election mail is often sorted by hand to ensure it gets handled promptly and properly, but this seems to vary by location.
That being said, this would only be a problem for voters who waited until the last minute to send back their ballots. If mail-in ballots are sent and returned over a period of weeks instead of days, it is unlikely, the postal workers said, to stress the machines even if some are taken away.
“We would have the capacity to run the volume of ballots that are expected if we have it in a longer period of time,” said Paul McKenna, president of Milwaukee Area Local 3 of the American Postal Workers Union. He likened it to flattening the curve of coronavirus. Now, he said, Americans have to flatten a different curve.