Matt Rourke / AP

USPS Tests More Mail Delivery Changes as Lawmakers Push Back

Critics of reforms under the new postmaster general say he is no longer treating the agency as a public service.

The U.S. Postal Service is rolling out a pilot program seeking to standardize mail delivery times, while leaving more items behind to go out the following day. 

The test, which USPS will run at nearly 200 sites around the country, follows a set of policy directives from postal management that sought to crack down on late trips in an effort to reduce labor and transportation costs. The pilots will run for 30-60 days and, for now, affect only city carriers. 

The aim of the initiative, labeled Expedited to Street/Afternoon Sortation, is to push mail sorting to the afternoon in order to get letter carriers on their routes earlier in the morning. The city letter carriers are now expected to return to their post offices by 2 p.m., at which point they will sort any new items and mail left behind for delivery the following day. The carriers will sort certain items, such as packages, in the morning prior to beginning their routes. They would also be responsible for taking some of the unsorted mail to be "routed in delivery sequence while on the street."

The latter push could anger letter carriers, who generally prefer to sort mail at their home post offices or distribution sites rather than outdoors in the elements such as the current summer heat. 

In a memo delivered as a "stand up talk" to affected employees in recent days, postal management summarized the plan as "retrieve, load and go," leading to minimal morning office time. The cash-strapped USPS, whose poor finances have taken a further hit during the novel coronavirus pandemic, in other recent memos instructed employees to leave for each phase of their deliveries according to a set schedule, meaning some mail will likely be delayed. The memos also announced that late trips and overtime would no longer be authorized. 

Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman, said the agency is implementing these changes now as it works on a more long-term strategy to present to its board of governors.

"In addition to developing a broader business plan, the Postal Service is taking immediate steps to increase operational efficiency by re-emphasizing existing plans that have been designed to provide prompt and reliable service within current service standards," Partenheimer said. "By running operations on time and on schedule, we will enhance our ability to be sustainable so that we can continue to provide high-quality, reasonably-priced service to all people and businesses in the country."

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate wrote letters to newly sworn-in Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in recent days asking for further explanation for the changes. In a letter spearheaded by Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the panel on Government Operations, four House Democrats said the changes would have “negative impacts on service standards and cause significant delays in mail delivery."

“While we share the goal of ensuring the Postal Service’s solvency, the rhetoric used in the document compares the Postal Service to a private company concerned only with the bottom line, rather than the constitutionally mandated public service that it is,” the lawmakers wrote on Monday. 

They faulted USPS for failing to consult its unions and stakeholders, and said delayed mail would be particularly unacceptable in a presidential election year with expected dramatic increases in mail-in ballots. They asked if the documents reflected official policy and the views of the postmaster general, if the changes would affect service standards and whether the agency consulted with its regulatory body. The letter followed a similar one from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

In its original memos, USPS vowed to address “the root causes” that have led to mail going out too late in the day, suggesting the directives would force new efficiencies in the system. 

“As we adjust to the ongoing pivot, which will have a number of phases, we know that operations will begin to run more efficiently and that delayed mail volumes will soon shrink significantly,” USPS wrote. It added the changes would “ensure we can secure our future as a world-class service provider.”

The National Association of Letter Carriers said last week it has not yet received any formal notification about a change in operations, but stands prepared to "use existing processes to address any service or compliance issues."