An employee loads vote-by-mail ballots into a truck for transport to a local U.S. Postal Service office at the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office on Sept. 24 in Lauderhill, Fla.

An employee loads vote-by-mail ballots into a truck for transport to a local U.S. Postal Service office at the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office on Sept. 24 in Lauderhill, Fla. Lynne Sladky / AP

Following Court Order, USPS Instructs Employees to Restore Extra Mail Trips and Some Processing Machines

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy had resisted such changes before a federal judge issued nationwide injunction.

The U.S. Postal Service has informed employees they should restart late and extra trips between facilities and reconnect some processing equipment as the agency attempts to come in compliance with a national injunction aimed at rolling back widespread mail delays ahead of the election. 

A federal judge in Washington state issued the injunction earlier this month, one of two USPS is facing, requiring the Postal Service to unwind the changes implemented by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that have caused the agency’s on-time delivery to decline across the country. Postal officials initially said the agency was “exploring our legal options,” making it unclear if they would appeal the injunction rather than comply with it. 

In a filing issued Thursday morning, however, USPS informed the court it sent instructions this week to employees to bring the agency in compliance. Shortly after taking office, DeJoy instituted a policy emphasizing mail transportation between processing plants and other facilities operated on a set schedule without late or extra trips. While postal officials said it was not their intention, that led to facilities across the country sending out trucks even if most of the mail scheduled to be sent out that day had not yet arrived. 

The judge ruled that was part of a politically motivated attempt to disenfranchise voters, as the resulting delays put the timely delivery of ballots at risk. In its instruction to workers, USPS said late or extra trips that are “reasonably necessary to complete timely mail delivery” cannot be “unreasonably restricted or prohibited.” It also clarified that mail “should not” be left behind. The memorandum authorized supervisors at the local level, repeatedly blamed by headquarters officials for causing the mail delays, to "use their best business judgement" to meet postal service standards. Postal management made clear the new memo superseded any previous guidance in conflict with it. 

USPS said that as of last week it had complied with all field requests to reconnect processing machines and has instructed managers to reconnect any additional machines they deem necessary for the timely delivery of election mail. The Postal Service’s effort to reduce its number of functioning machines predates DeJoy, but the postmaster general ordered a pause on the initiative until after the election. He previously told Congress, however, he would not instruct facilities to reconnect decommissioned machines as they were deemed superfluous given current mail volumes. 

Postal management also instructed employees to take a variety of steps to ensure the timely delivery of election mail, including by prioritizing it each day for expedited distribution. DeJoy has come under fire for instituting changes that could impact election mail ahead of an election that will shatter records for mailed ballots, as voters remain apprehensive about voting in person due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

USPS asked for clarification on the court’s order, saying a literal interpretation of the injunction may actually make ballots get delivered more slowly. In some cases, the agency said, a small amount of mail must be left behind in order to ensure the vast majority that is already loaded onto a truck is not delayed. The Postal Service can often run extra trips to ensure even that small batch of mail is not left for the following day, but occasionally its contractors do not have extra trucks available. 

The agency also requested clarification on a court order to transport election mail by air, which it said is “not possible for technical reasons without seriously disrupting the Postal Service’s operations.” 

USPS asked the court to issue a clarification by Oct. 1. Without one, it said, the agency would seek a stay in an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  

Earlier this week, a federal judge in New York also issued an injunction ordering USPS to unwind the changes instituted by DeJoy. The judge ordered USPS to treat all election mail as first-class mail for the purposes of expedited delivery, pre-approve all overtime from Oct. 26 though Nov. 6, identify and take all steps necessary to restore on-time delivery to its 2020 high point, and tell employees that late and extra trips are allowed and facilitate the prompt delivery of mail. USPS has yet to respond to that order. The cases in New York and Washington were just two of several lawsuits USPS is facing in response to DeJoy’s efforts.