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Dismantling Mail Sorting Machines Could Leave A Lasting Mark On The Postal Service


Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has suspended some of the cost-cutting measures that were delaying mail delivery. But not all the cuts can easily be undone. Across the country in recent weeks, postal employees have been busy dismantling complex mail-sorting machines. And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, that could leave a lasting mark on the Postal Service.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The U.S. Postal Service Processing and Distribution Center here in Kansas City is a four-story building that spans almost a block. Trucks pull into bays on the ground floor full of unsorted mail - checks, cards, prescriptions. That mail is sorted inside this building and sent back out for delivery. But this processing plant is not as robust as it was just a few days ago.

ANTOINETTE ROBINSON: Yes, there have been some machines taken out of here. They removed - I think it was three, what we call delivery bar code sorting machines.

MORRIS: Antoinette Robinson heads the American Postal Workers Union Local in Kansas City. The sorting machines she's talking about are huge, each nearly the size of a low-slung subway car. And they're complex, able to sort up to 35,000 pieces of mail in an hour. And Robinson says they've been pulled offline across the country.

ROBINSON: So that's a huge deal, you know, to remove machines during a pandemic when everybody is relying on the mail. And then now we have people wanting to vote by mail. Those machines are the machines that will process them ballots.

MORRIS: The post office had planned to shut down more than 600 sorting machines, about 10% of its sorting capacity nationwide. And Daleo Freeman, who heads the Postal Workers Union chapter in Cleveland, says the plan, as he understood it in May, was to just mothball the machines, to unplug them and wrap them in tarps. But he says that changed when the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, took over in June.

DALEO FREEMAN: They were tarped initially, then they were dismantled, and then they were put out back. They're done.

MORRIS: Put out back on the asphalt in the weather. There is some rationale for scrapping some sorting machines. The volume of the so-called flat mail that goes through them has dropped by 30% just since March. And of course, that follows a long decline in physical cards, letters and magazines going through the mail.

The mail has been moving sluggishly this summer, partly because of DeJoy's recent cutbacks, including strict limits on overtime and rigid delivery schedules. The post office alerted states that slowdowns could stall delivery, even invalidate some mail-in ballots. That led Democrats to accuse the Trump administration of trying to gum up the mail before the election. States lined up to sue. Politicians like Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, got an earful.

EMANUEL CLEAVER: The post office polls at 90 plus approval. You know, I'm not sure sirloin steak and lobster polls in the 90s.

MORRIS: And yesterday, the postmaster general relented. Louis DeJoy suspended the cost-cutting measures, at least until after the election. The post office wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this story, but in a written statement promised that retail hours won't change, overtime will be restored and that mail processing equipment will stay put. What's not clear is how many machines have already been taken apart and hauled away. That's also not the most pressing problem. American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein says the USPS has suffered massive losses during the pandemic and needs $25 billion now.

MARK DIMONDSTEIN: If it's not addressed, the post office literally sometime early next year is projected and predicted to run out of money.

MORRIS: The House is set to vote Saturday on emergency funding for the post office, though it's not clear if the Senate will act. President Trump, who has long been critical of the post office and mail-in voting, has at various times both supported and opposed more funding. If the post office does eventually get the money it's asking for, it's likely that new sorting machines won't be on the top of its shopping list. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.