What the Post Office Needs to Survive a Pandemic Election

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

This article is part of Electionland, ProPublica’s collaborative reporting project covering problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

This fall’s elections are the latest chapter in the slow-motion collapse of the U.S. Postal Service, one of America’s most venerated institutions. As November approaches, members of Congress and state election officials have grown increasingly concerned that the USPS will fail at a critical moment: a closely contested vote that will involve a record number of people casting a ballot by mail.

That worry was fueled by President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegation that voting by mail leads to massive fraud and by reports from Postal Service employees that key equipment was being removed and overtime was being slashed. The newly appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, responded to what he termed “areas of concern” by announcing that he would approve overtime “as needed” and delay the removal of mail sorting machines until after the election. But the problems at the Postal Service go well beyond those issues and predate DeJoy. Earlier this month, the USPS warned state election officials that it might not be able to meet deadlines for delivering ballots for the November elections.

With DeJoy scheduled to testify before an emergency session of Congress on Friday, here’s a guide to help you understand the issues and what remedies lawmakers could provide.

What’s going on at the Postal Service under DeJoy? Is mail being slowed intentionally?

There are at least three possible reasons for the unusual recent delays in mail delivery.

The first is both the most obvious and the most tragic: More than 8,000 postal workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to USPS’ official count. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has addressed more than 200 complaints against the USPS alleging insufficient COVID-19 protections, and the toll on workers could be slowing down the overall mail operation.

The second is that staff cost-cutting plans were implemented by DeJoy. One way that the USPS deals with variations in demand is by spending more on staffing, including overtime. For example, during the holiday season there is greater demand for mail, which translates into increased overtime spending. When the USPS reduces this spending, performance can suffer.

In July, the Postal Service told staff that in an effort to cut costs, it would no longer be making late or extra delivery trips from processing and distribution centers. The USPS also began eliminating overtime hours put in by workers. Because of the staff shortage caused by the pandemic, postal workers were using more overtime than usual, making the cuts especially severe.

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