Vote-by-mail ballots are shown in sorting trays at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle, on Aug. 5.

Vote-by-mail ballots are shown in sorting trays at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle, on Aug. 5. Ted S. Warren / AP

USPS Is Rerouting Mail Away From Some Processing Plants, Sparking More Concern Over Delays

Employees, reminded of previous plant closure efforts, are expecting job relocations.

The U.S. Postal Service is rerouting mail away from at least some of its smaller processing plants, creating more uncertainty surrounding recent changes that could lead to slower mail delivery. 

The changes are taking place at least in Washington state, where mail—both flats and packages—will be diverted away from three small facilities to either end of the state in Seattle or Spokane. Rather than being processed locally, mail pieces will go across the state before being routed back to their destinations. 

All three of the processing and distribution centers that will see their mail rerouted—Tacoma, Yakima and Wenatchee—were scheduled for consolidation as part of a “network rationalization” plan USPS started to carry out in 2011. Facing significant backlash from Congress, the Postal Service never fully implemented the second phase of its plan and the three Washington plants were spared. Operations at the three facilities were scheduled to be consolidated at Seattle and Spokane. 

USPS said in a letter to employees obtained by Government Executive the changes were necessary as mail volumes “continue to decline at an unprecedented pace,” requiring it to “review the current mail processing operations.” Kenn Messenger, senior plant manager for the Seattle district, said the number of workers would not be impacted but bidding for “job realignment” or “excessing”—a process by which USPS relocates employees—was on the table. 

Phase two of the Postal Service’s network rationalization plan was set to reduce the USPS workforce by 15,000 employees. In the first phase of the initiative carried out in 2011 and 2012, USPS successfully shuttered or consolidated 141 processing plants. A USPS spokesman declined to say whether the rerouting plans currently underway in Washington were occurring anywhere else, stating only they would lead to a “high-speed, cutting-edge process” that would be “seamless to the customer.” 

The changes in Washington come as newly sworn in Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has faced significant backlash for reforms that he has conceded have caused service disruptions. USPS has instituted a partial hiring freeze, limited overtime availability and sought to ensure letter carriers leave for their routes as scheduled each day, even if that results in mail being left behind. Employees and other stakeholders have said this has led to significant delays in the mail, though USPS has yet to release data on the impact of the changes. DeJoy told employees last week his “transformative initiative” had "unintended consequences that impacted our service levels overall."

The Postal Service has launched a pilot program reordering when letter carriers sort mail each day. It has also engaged in an effort to eliminate excessive mail processing equipment and public drop boxes, though it has repeatedly stressed those efforts are routine. The specifics of the equipment decommissioning date back to before DeJoy’s swearing in. 

One employee in Washington affected by the rerouting questioned the timing of the decision. 

“Doing this before election and pre-peak [holiday season] is suicide,” the employee said. He cast doubt the changes would lead to savings, saying a majority of the mail is local and will therefore be sent across the state just to be returned back to where it started. That process, he said, would cause unnecessary delays. 

The previous USPS consolidations—which were accompanied by slower delivery windows—led to a series of reports finding USPS missing even its own revised delivery standards. The Postal Service inspector general found in 2018 USPS realized just 5% of its projected savings from slowing mail delivery and closing facilities. The IG’s office has announced it will investigate DeJoy’s recent changes. 

Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, said he was not aware of the Postal Service’s efforts to reroute mail but said it aligned with the agency’s “path to undermining and denigrating services.” Confirming reports from individual employees, large-scale mailers and DeJoy himself, Dimondstein said his union has heard widespread anecdotal reports of delays in the mail. He described some “obscene” cases in which packages are sitting on the floor for a week after being processed. 

“We know it’s not isolated,” Dimondstein said. “It’s not one town, it’s not one city, it’s not one state. We’re getting reports from all over the country. We know mail is definitely slowing down.”

The situation, he said, is demoralizing the workforce and making employees “angry and upset.” 

USPS has faced particular criticism for the impact its changes will have on election mail, including mailed-in ballots. The agency has warned most states that their schedules for sending out and collecting ballots may lead to late delivery in some cases. States and members of Congress have also questioned whether USPS will continue its tradition of treating ballots designated as marketing mail as first-class pieces. Marketing mail is a cheaper way for states to send out ballots, but has a slower delivery window. The Postal Service has advised states to send ballots using first-class mail, the same advice USPS officials say the agency has given for years.  

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called on DeJoy to roll back his changes at least until after the election, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called members back from recess this week to allow for a vote on legislation that would accomplish that. Even if the House passes the bill, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has indicated he does not support its passage. Members of both parties are also pushing a measure to provide USPS with a $25 billion cash infusion to help offset its losses from the novel coronavirus pandemic. President Trump, who blocked efforts to provide postal funding in previous coronavirus relief negotiations and indicated he was against emergency funding for the agency as it would help USPS deliver mailed ballots, said over the weekend he would now support an appropriation if it were part of a larger bill. 

While postal management has said it now has enough liquidity to operate at least through August 2021—thanks to a major uptick in package volume during the pandemic and a new $10 billion loan authorized by Congress—Dimondstein called the Postal Service’s downturn in business as a result of the pandemic “the biggest immediate threat” to the agency. He said it was incumbent upon Congress to act in support of USPS, as it did with the private sector. 

DeJoy on Monday agreed to testify next week in front of the House Oversight and Reform Committee in what promises to be a contentious hearing. Multiple members of the panel have called on DeJoy to resign and members of both chambers have pressed the postmaster general for more information and documents related to his reforms. Reps. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a committee member, and Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., on Monday called on FBI Director Chris Wray to investigate DeJoy for violating federal statutes that prohibit individuals from intentionally delaying the mail.