Jim Miller’s mail-order medicine typically takes five days to arrive at his home in north Minneapolis. This month, it took two weeks.
Miller, a Vietnam veteran who worked 35 years for the U.S. Postal Service, asked why. The postal workers he spoke to said they had been told to curtail delivery of first-class mail.
The Postal Service denies the charge, saying it is trying to handle mail in a more cost-effective way that reduces overtime and keeps the service financially sustainable.
Still, examples of slow mail delivery now abound in the Twin Cities, adding to a raging national debate about recently appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major donor and fundraiser for President Donald Trump. Last week, Trump made clear he opposes additional money for the Postal Service to handle an expected surge of mail-in ballots, which he has said could cost him re-election.
As the battle over mail-in voting intensifies ahead of the November election, some customers feel as if they have become collateral damage.
Angie Sandifer, who designs hats in her St. Paul art studio, has noticed the extended lengths of time it took to deliver face masks she makes for people to wear during the pandemic. One shipment to Boston took three weeks. But it really hit home when she could not get needed supplies and almost missed a hat delivery deadline.
“I ordered the supplies on Friday,” she said. “I paid extra for priority two-day delivery. The package shipped on Monday. I tracked the package online. It sat for four days in a mail facility in St. Paul. It was really frustrating. I could see it was in St. Paul but couldn’t do anything about it.”
DeJoy issued a memo recently that directed mail carriers to leave mail behind if it was not sorted by regularly scheduled departure times. The document, titled “New PMG’s [Postmaster General’s] expectations and plan,” reads in part, “If the plants run late, they will keep the mail for the next day.”
Samantha Hartwig, president of Branch 9 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, which includes Minneapolis and some suburbs, said the result has been slower mail service. “The new postmaster general has issued some different initiatives on how we deliver the mail, and some of that has slowed down some of the mail,” she said.
“We want to deliver every piece, every day,” she added, noting that customers sometimes get their packages a day late.
While mail carriers assemble the mail for their routes, postal clerks sort the packages, and postal officials in the branches sometimes want the carriers to begin their routes before the package sorting has been completed, Hartwig said.
Trump critics such as Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar charge that DeJoy, who has contributed $440,000 to the Trump campaign, is weaponizing the post office by slowing down delivery of mail-in ballots. State election officials have been told they must pay more to mail those ballots if they want them delivered first-class. Klobuchar worries that slow delivery and added expense could disqualify hundreds of thousands of votes in the upcoming presidential election because mail-in ballots could arrive too late to be legally counted. That happened on a smaller scale in recent primary elections, she said.
Klobuchar has led or signed three letters from Democratic lawmakers asking DeJoy to explain his policies. She says they have received no answers. “It’s nakedly transparent what they are doing,” she said.
Klobuchar pointed to recent statements by Trump, who opposes extra funding to the post office to handle an expected deluge of mail-in ballots during the pandemic. On Thursday, Trump told Fox Business Network that Democrats want extra funding “in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. But if they don’t get [additional funding], that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting, because they’re not equipped to have it.”
Trump has repeatedly invoked the potential for fraud in mail-in voting. Democrats say he has offered no proof.
States across the country are expanding access to mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, with 34 states and the District of Columbia allowing anyone to vote absentee. As millions more voters turn to this alternative, state election officials have not reported problems with fraud from the mail-in ballots. Studies have shown that all forms of voting fraud are rare.
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the electoral arm of the House Republicans, did not respond to requests for comment on the Postal Service controversy.
As the debate over mail-in voting heats up in Washington, regular mail service is hanging in the balance.
“The delays affect people’s lives and livelihoods,” said Miller, the retired postal worker in Minneapolis. “The mail carriers and others I talk to are just aghast.”
Miller says new policies directed at holding back mail run against everything postal workers are trained to do, and he believes it may violate federal law dealing with delaying the mail.
“You’re taught to protect the mail, not to leave it behind,” Miller said. “You’re always drilled on the sanctity of mail. I don’t think he has the right to curtail the mail.”
DeJoy’s policy of sending out mail carriers at specific times whether or not their mail loads are complete strikes Sandifer as self-defeating.
“We rely on USPS,” she said. “The post office is running out of money. But if they can’t deliver on time, we’re going to use alternative shipping. They’re just going to lose more money. I shipped some hats by FedEx the other day to make sure they got where they were supposed to go on time.”
Financial disclosure reports show that DeJoy and his wife have invested between $30 million and $75 million in private companies that compete with the U.S. Postal Service, adding to congressional skepticism of his stewardship of the post office. DeJoy has said he will divest assets that conflict with his position as postmaster general.
Still, Kathy Blair of St. Paul believes DeJoy’s new postal delivery policies “could turn into a real disaster when it comes to the election.” Blair, 73, has sent packages for 10 years to her son’s family on the West Coast without incident. In July, she tried to send birthday presents to her granddaughter in California.
On July 14 she mailed a package with two dresses, a manicure kit and several books to her granddaughter, who was turning 7 on July 21. She paid for three-day priority mail.
“As of July 18, it was listed as delayed and in transit,” Blair said. “The status has not been updated since July 18.”
The package never arrived. Blair filed a claim but has yet to find out what happened to her granddaughter’s gifts. She talked to people at the post office. The problem, they told her, was the postmaster’s order.