40% of letter-handling machines dismantled in Seattle-Tacoma area
By the time Postmaster General Louis DeJoy halted a raft of changes that might slow down the U.S. mail, the Postal Service had already shut down 40% of the high-speed letter-sorting machines in the Seattle-Tacoma area, KUOW has learned.
Following a national uproar over the removal of postal equipment and reductions of retail service hours and worker overtime, the Trump Administration’s new postmaster general announced Tuesday that he was putting the initiatives on hold until November.
“To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded,” DeJoy said in a statement.
“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” he said.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, an unprecedented number of Americans are expected to vote by mail this fall.
When asked how many machines had already been decommissioned and whether they would be put back in service, Postal Service spokesperson David Partenheimer declined to comment.
If letter-sorting machines remain out of service, it could put a dent in the post office’s ability to quickly deliver both letters and mail-in ballots.
Internal documents from May reveal that the Postal Service was planning to remove 20% of "DBCS" (digital barcode sorter) machines nationwide this summer.
In Washington state, at least 23 DBCS letter-sorting machines had been dismantled by Tuesday at major postal facilities, according to a tally by KUOW:
- Kent: 4 of 10 machines
- Redmond: 5 of 12
- Spokane: 1 of 14
- Tacoma: 5 of 13
- Tukwila: 6 of 16
- Wenatchee: 1 of 3
- Yakima: 1 of 3
Brian Warden works the night shift at the mail-processing plant in Kent, just south of Seattle, where he operates letter-sorting machines.
These noisy, whirring behemoths are about 80 feet long: the length of a hinged city bus.
“These machines require so much power that the power cord to them is about the size of a firehose or bigger,” Warden said.
One machine can sort six letters a second, more than 20,000 an hour, into hundreds of trays for different letter carriers. Letters in each tray are stacked in the exact order each mail carrier will need to grab them while walking a route.
“It would take a crew of 20 to 30 people hand-sorting the mail all night to do what one of these machines can do in a couple hours,” Warden said. “Our infrastructure doesn’t work without these machines.”
Warden, an officer of the American Postal Workers Union, said the four letter-sorting machines that management ordered taken down were being fully used until they were dismantled.
“In our meetings with management, the union has been given no rationale whatsoever,” he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has slashed the volume of letters the Postal Service handles, while the volume of packages has soared.
Before the pandemic, Warden said, letter volumes were dropping gradually, about 3% a year.
“It'd be foolish to adjust your equipment and whatnot on the premise that it's going to stay so low,” he said. “Someday, Covid will be done.”
“What’s going on right now is nothing less than a full-on assault by this administration on the U.S. Postal Service, an institution that millions of Americans rely on every single day,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.
Ferguson, with 13 other states signing on, sued the Trump administration to block the Postal Service initiatives on Tuesday.
During their press conference, Ferguson and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro were surprised by the breaking news that the Postal Service would be suspending its controversial initiatives.
The Postal Service also announced it would put additional vehicles and other resources on standby on Oct. 1 to handle any unforeseen demand with the election.
Ferguson said moves implemented by the post office had already done damage by slowing the delivery of everything from Social Security checks to prescriptions.
“There’s zero chance we take our foot off the gas,” Ferguson said. “We want that in writing and confirmed before we delay or stop what we’re doing.”
"I’ll believe it when I see it," Shapiro said.
The fate of the disabled sorting machines, and even entire processing plants, remains unclear.
Photos shared by workers at the Postal Service processing plant in Tacoma show piles of conduit, used to house wires running to the big sorters, next to dismantled machines.
“They’ve taken the machines apart and shoved them to a different part of the building,” Donna Brooks with the American Postal Workers Union local in Tacoma said.
Tuesday afternoon, managers ordered postal workers in Tacoma, Wenatchee and Yakima to reconnect their machines ASAP, using overtime if necessary.
Reconnecting the wiring and oversized conduits should take about five hours per machine, depending how extensively they’ve been taken apart, according to postal workers.
“Luckily, the machines haven’t left the building,” Brooks said.
The Spokane Spokesman-Review had reported Monday that the Postal Service was ending all mail processing at those three locations.
The Postmaster General’s announcement on Tuesday said that no facilities would close until November.
A few hours after the reconnect order, the Postal Service’s head of maintenance ordered that machines nationwide not be reconnected without approval from Postal Service headquarters.
“Although the Postmaster General belatedly suspended at least some of these changes yesterday, today he is backpedaling by refusing to put back the sorting machines, mailboxes, and other infrastructure he ordered removed,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement Wednesday.
Postmaster General DeJoy has agreed to testify and face questioning before the U.S. House of Representatives’ oversight committee, which Maloney chairs. He also faces an investigation from the Postal Service’s Inspector General and is scheduled to testify before a U.S. Senate committee on Friday.
“Democrats have fabricated a baseless conspiracy theory about the Postal Service and now they are asking American taxpayers to foot the bill for their fake crisis,” the leading Republican on the House oversight committee, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, said in a statement.
The House is returning to work a month ahead of schedule to vote on $25 billion in relief funding for the Postal Service and measures aimed at protecting the service’s ability to deliver mail and ballots promptly in a pandemic.
Postal Service internal planning documents from May show the agency was planning to remove 746 letter-sorting machines, or 1 in 5 nationwide, this summer: