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Internal USPS Documents Outline Plans to Hobble Mail Sorting

14/08/2020

The United States Postal Service proposed removing 20 percent of letter sorting machines it uses around the country before revising the plan weeks later to closer to 15 percent of all machines, meaning 502 will be taken out of service, according to documents obtained by Motherboard outlining the agency’s plans. USPS workers told Motherboard this will slow their ability to sort mail.

One of the documents also suggests these changes were in the works before Louis DeJoy, a top Trump donor and Republican fundraiser, became postmaster general, because it is dated May 15, a month before DeJoy assumed office and only nine days after the Board of Governors announced his selection.

The title of the presentation, as well as language used in the notice to union officials, undermines the Postal Service’s narrative that the organization is simply “mov[ing] equipment around its network” to optimize processing, as spokesperson Dave Partenheimer told Motherboard on Thursday. The May document clearly calls the initiative an “equipment reduction.” It makes no mention of the machines being moved to other facilities. And the notice to union officials repeatedly uses the same phrase. Multiple sources within the postal service told Motherboard they have personally witnessed the machines, which cost millions of dollars, being destroyed or thrown in the dumpster. USPS did not respond to a request for comment.

In May, the USPS planned to remove a total of 969 sorting machines out of the 4,926 it had in operation as of February for all types of letters and flat mail. The vast majority of them—746 out of 3,765 in use—were delivery bar code sorters (DBCS), the type that sort letters, postcards, ballots, marketing mail and other similarly sized pieces. But a subsequent document distributed to union officials in mid-June said 502 of those machines would be removed from facilities. 

The May document, titled “Equipment Reduction,” breaks down the exact number of machines the USPS slated to remove by region and facility. Although the document uses terms like “proposed reduction” and “reduction plan” and does not reflect the USPS’s final plan, it provides a general picture of the sweeping changes previously reported by Motherboard about mail sorting machines being removed around the country. It also shows that USPS management is undertaking a broad reduction of the agency’s ability to sort and process all types of mail, except for packages which have been steadily increasing in recent years before booming during the pandemic.

Further, the timeline of the May document did not come to pass. It proposed a plan resulting in the machines being removed by the end of July, but that didn’t happen. Interviews with six postal workers and union officials around the country, who spoke to Motherboard on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to speak to the media, revealed these machine removals are still occurring in Michigan, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Texas.

More machine removals are planned in the months ahead. The document sent to union officials in June shows an updated plan to extend the machine removal timeline through the first quarter of 2021.

Motherboard also viewed documents from the same region that laid out detailed plans to reroute mail to sorting facilities further away in order to centralize mail processing even if it moves the mail across further distances. To the union officials, the result of these plans was clear: “This will slow mail processing,” one wrote in large font.

The move to slash the agency’s mail-sorting capacity just as the post office prepares to play a pivotal role in the upcoming election has raised alarm among elected officials. On Wednesday, 47 Senators sent a letter to DeJoy urging him “not to take any action that makes it harder and more expensive for Americans to vote.”

The removal of so many letter-sorting machines also does little to quell concern that President Trump—who has stated his opposition to giving the USPS additional money to handle the election because he doesn’t want mail-in ballots to be properly handled and counted—is intentionally interfering in the USPS’s operations to achieve his desired ends.

“Donald Trump made clear that he is dismantling the Postal Service so he can steal the election by making it harder to vote by mail,” said Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a signatory of the letter. “Removing 20 percent of the Postal Service’s sorting and processing equipment looks like another part of his plan to bulldoze a vital American institution just to cling to power.”

“The Trump Administration is launching an all-out war on the U.S. Postal Service,” said West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, another letter signatory. “Several weeks ago we learned they had unexpectedly announced closures of several West Virginia post offices. Then we learned of their plans to change the regulations surrounding the first class mail and election mail. Now we’re hearing reports that the post office is removing sorting machines and reducing capacity a few months before an election where we’ll see more mail-in ballots than ever before. This is insane.”

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