Neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night may prevent Postal Service employees from visiting the box near you, but across the country there’s evidence that political pressure really can “stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” In New Jersey, residents say they’re going days without mail. In Chicago, citizens complain that their deliveries are running weeks behind. And California residents are fretting over mortgages and rents put in jeopardy by a mail service that seems frozen.
There’s no doubt that some of the chatter about a sluggish mail service is of the watched-pot variety; with millions of Americans stuck at home, the visit from the mail person has become much more of a daily highlight than it has been since the days when the Sears catalog was still a thing. But boredom and hyperawareness can’t account for all the claims that have been spreading, particularly ones that suggest specific forms of mail are being privileged while others are left to gather dust. And with Donald Trump complaining about voting by mail, installing a new postmaster general, and constantly threatening the Postal Service’s entire existence, it’s all too easy to believe that service doesn’t have problems; it has sabotage at the highest levels.
More than ever, the COVID-19 crisis is forcing people to not just be aware of the mail, but to be dependent on it. More and more of the day-to-day things that people need are being delivered as packages, which makes stories about undelivered packages and post offices with lines around the block doubly frustrating. Not only are people having to waste time trying to locate items that should have been delivered, their time waiting for service at the post office can expose them to the same health threats that caused them to order a delivery in the first place. That problem can be compounded even further if what’s in the missing box is necessary medicine.
Other customers are finding that bills are late to arrive. That can mean running up additional costs on medical bills, or causing someone to lose a credit card at a time when that card could be a vital lifeline. Many, though far from all, evictions may have been put on hold during the pandemic, but there’s a growing backlog of Americans who could be on the street as soon as protections are lifted; and some of them could be there because they missed critical paperwork in the mail. Many Americans, especially those working at “essential” but somehow still low wage positions, still receive their paychecks through the mail. When that check is late, it has a cascade effect on everything.
So what’s going on?
The critical factor seems to be changes introduced by new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. DeJoy was a predominate Republican Party fundraiser who Trump rewarded with the postmaster job in June, after months of complaints and threats by Trump.
As The Washington Post reported two weeks ago, DeJoy immediately implemented a major change in the way the Postal Service operates. The intention seems to have been to reduce overtime and cut back on the number of daily deliveries. The effect is that mail that would have normally been moved along in one day is stuck in place for several days as workers face overwhelming demand and intentionally limited resources. In a memo to workers, DeJoy continually cited his intention to run the Postal Service more “like a business,” and pointed at U.S. companies that had failed in the past. DeJoy did not mention that those companies died from a lack of demand and being outcompeted by lower-price providers, factors that are the opposite of the issues plaguing the Postal Service.
Postmaster generals generally have post office experience and generally stay in place for an extended period, but DeJoy slipped into office with almost no attention from Congress or the press. He’s the first person in half a century to lead the office without having started as a letter carrier.
But if DeJoy doesn’t know how to carry letters, he certainly knows how to carry water for Trump. DeJoy seems to recognize that his entire role at the Postal Service is to breed contempt with the public. Months of late bills, missing checks, and lost packages are exactly what Trump wants to see, both to bolster his argument against vote-by-mail and to make him “right” about the need to privatize mail delivery.
There’s also the little matter that DeJoy himself has between “$30.1 million and $75.3 million in assets in USPS competitors or contractors.” It’s such a major conflict of interest that DeJoy should never have been accepted into the role. Except that an ideological crony with every incentive to wreck the department he’d been handed was exactly what Trump was looking for.
Chuck Schumer sent a letter to the postal board of governors and representatives from the Trump White House in June, demanding to see the information on how DeJoy was selected for the position. However … it appears his letter got lost. You can bet it will stay lost, right up until Election Day.