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The U.S. Postal Service has been in the blog a lot lately – first, the dispute about vote-by-mail (VBM) in Utah County (which they worked out!) and then the internal report recommending increased efforts to promote VBM (a recommendation the USPS will not follow, as electionlineWeekly found). Now, however, the USPS is back in the news … and it isn’t good.
The Associated Press has a new story revealing that service changes are resulting in a spike in delivery delays:
Amid a significant downsizing of the money-strapped U.S. Postal Service, the number of letters arriving late has jumped by almost 50 percent since the start of the year.
And that’s as measured against the agency’s own newly relaxed standards.
The delays have become so serious that the Postal Service’s watchdog issued an urgent alert earlier this month recommending that postal officials put all further closures of mail-sorting plants on hold until service stabilizes.
“The impacts on customer service and employees have been considerable,” Inspector General Dave Williams wrote.
Mail that’s supposed to take two days to arrive took longer — anywhere from 6 to 15 percent of the time during the first six months of 2015, investigators found, a decline in service of almost 7 percent from the same period last year. Letters that should take three to five days took longer anywhere from 18 to 44 percent of the time, a 38 percent decline in performance over the same time last year.
Even worse, this rise in late deliveries is measured using a lower, slower standard than before:
First-class mail has gradually been traveling more slowly since the Postal Service started closing dozens of mail-sorting plants in 2012. But in January, something more drastic happened: To prepare for another round of plant closings, the agency eliminated overnight delivery for local first-class letters that used to arrive the next day. And up to half of mail traveling longer distances was given an extra day to reach its destination.
These longer delivery times became the new normal, or “service standards” in postal parlance. Mail was considered on time if it took four to five days to arrive instead of three.
But postal officials have struggled this year to meet even these lower standards. The delays have been compounded by two factors, the inspector general found: Severe storms last winter and changes to plant operations that started when the new standards took effect. Thousands of postal workers were reassigned and shifts were changed, resulting in a disorganized, inefficient workplace.
From January through June, 494 million pieces of mail did not meet the standard for local or cross-country delivery, a 48 percent jump from the same period last year, investigators found.
The Postal Service doesn’t agree with the moratorium on further changes, citing improving delivery stats and other circumstances like weather affecting transit time:
Service gradually has rebounded a little each month since January, with scores for both 2- and 3-day mail within .914 and 10.9 percent, in June of where they were during the same month last year. But the inspector general cautioned that mail still is not reliable.
Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer, in a statement, described the changes in January as the “greatest operational changes the Postal Service has ever implemented.
“Despite our best efforts to minimize the impacts of the changes, there were some insurmountable challenges that negatively affected service performance, especially when considering the impacts of severe winter weather conditions,” he wrote.
“We remain totally committed to identifying and correcting errant processes in our operations as early as possible.”
But the agency did not agree with the inspector general’s recommendation that plant closings stay on hold until service improves across the board. Postmaster General Megan Brennan has temporarily halted the closings; it’s unclear when they’ll resume.
Not surprisingly, Congress is hearing about the slow delivery and wants to do something about it, but isn’t sure what – especially since fixes will cost money:
Members of Congress are now hearing from angry constituents whose mail is taking longer to arrive. The House took a drastic step this spring, passing a measure that requires the Postal Service to return mail delivery standards to 2012 levels. It raised the possibility that some shuttered plants would have to reopen.
The Congressional Budget Office said the cost to turn back the clock was so high that it would be unrealistic. The Senate didn’t take up the bill.
Plant closures have long been a concern for postal unions, who fear a shrinking workforce. Two weeks ago, Brennan met with labor leaders as well as civil rights and consumer groups calling themselves “A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service,” and slow mail delivery was among the issues on the table.
After foundering in three Congresses, legislation to stabilize postal finances is still a possibility, congressional aides say. One of the key issues a bill is likely to address is how to make sure that as the post office cuts costs, it doesn’t shortchange its customers, particularly those in rural areas.
That’s the primary thrust of a bill sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who started a campaign last year called “Fix My Mail.” Hundreds of residents wrote to her complaining of late deliveries, nonexistent deliveries, mistakes with mail forwarding and short hours at post offices.
Heitkamp, joined by three senators with rural constituencies, introduced legislation this summer called the “Rural Postal Act.”
Its No. 1 requirement would be restoring service standards so mail reaches its destination faster.
The link between mail delivery problems and elections is abundantly clear: as jurisdictions rely more and more on mailed ballots and materials, USPS service issues can reduce the amount of time voters have to review the materials and/or create a problem for election officials when otherwise valid ballots arrive too late to be counted. More and more, I hear from election officials out there about how much time and effort (and worry) they invest in working with their local post office to ensure timely delivery of election materials, especially ballots. Moreover, it sounds like these efforts aren’t aimed at optimizing the relationship as much as they are developing stopgaps and double-checks in order to overcome declining performance. Soon, it may not just be overseas military and civilian ballots for whom slow delivery is a major cause of problems on and after Election Day.
The good news, as always, is that we have people like Tammy Patrick on the case – in large part, staying on the USPS’ case – but it’s huge problem that will require a comprehensive solution. As the number of ballots moving through the mail to and from voters increases, it’s a solution that can’t wait.