Postal Service removes some mail-sorting machines, sparking concerns ahead of election

The US Postal Service (USPS) plans to remove hundreds of high-volume mail-processing machines from facilities across the country. This image shows USPS trucks parked at a postal facility on August 15, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. By Curt Devine, Bob Ortega and Paul P. Murphy, CNN

(CNN) -- The US Postal Service plans to remove hundreds of high-volume mail-processing machines from facilities across the country, leading some postal workers to fear they may have less capacity to process mail during election season.

Documents obtained by CNN indicate 671 machines used to organize letters or other pieces of mail are slated for "reduction" in dozens of cities this year. The agency started removing machines in June, according to postal workers.

While the reductions come amid decreased mail volume this year and are described by some postal officials as making the service more cost-effective, the effort overlaps with other actions implemented by the Postal Service that workers have blamed for delivery delays. The new procedures were described in a July memo and include staff hours being cut.

The news was earlier reported by Vice.

The removals are also occurring as President Donald Trump has relentlessly attacked voting by mail, falsely claiming that the practice leads to mass fraud. Amid the pandemic, a record number of voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail this fall. Trump said Thursday that he opposes additional funding for the Postal Service because he doesn't want to see it used for mail-in voting this November, though he later said at a news conference that he would not veto a bill that included the funding.

The Postal Service said in a statement that it "routinely moves equipment around its network as necessary to match changing mail and package volumes. Package volume is up, but mail volume continues to decline. Adapting our processing infrastructure to the current volumes will ensure more efficient, cost effective operations and better service for our customers."

But the Postal Service's own document calls the move a "reduction" of equipment. Postal workers in various locations said machines have been dismantled and that it wasn't immediately clear what the agency was doing with the parts.

Some of these machines have the capacity to sort up to 30,000 mail items and take only two Postal Service workers to run, according two machine technicians CNN spoke with.

They estimate it would take about 30 employees over their entire shifts -- they have to have scheme training to do the work -- to do that amount of work by hand.

The reduction effort has prompted questions and concerns among some postal union leaders.

A letter sent Wednesday from the National Postal Mail Handlers Union to the Postal Service headquarters asked, "Why are these machines being removed?" and "What is the anticipated staffing impacts in the facilities that are losing equipment?" The letter also asked if it's true that all equipment planned for removal has not been used since early May.

Chris Bentley, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 297, which covers Kansas and part of Missouri, told CNN that postal management has already taken out four machines in Kansas City, two machines in Springfield, Missouri, and one machine in Wichita, Kansas.

Bentley said that even though total mail volume is currently down, he didn't understand why the machines were being removed rather than simply turned off and kept in place in case they are needed in the fall, when the Postal Service expects volume to increase with mail-in ballots, campaign materials and other mail.

"The comparison would be that if you have a room in your house that you are not using much anymore, you might turn the light switch off to that room, but you wouldn't call an electrician and have all the wiring removed from that room," he said.

Lamont Brooks, director of the clerks division of the American Postal Workers Union, said the Postal Service hadn't informed the union it was removing machines until the union asked about the issue in June, when it started getting calls from mail clerks about the dismantling of machines.

He echoed concerns about potential delays for mail-in ballots.

"There's no way it's not going to be a problem [for] Election Day," Brooks said.

Still, Paul Hogrogian, national president for the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, said he does not expect the dismantling of processing equipment to have a widespread impact on mail delivery time across the country, including in election season.

"A lot of the machines they are taking out ... a lot of them haven't been used in a while anyways," he said.

But he said it may be too early to tell if the Postal Service is taking out too many and that he has heard that plans to remove a few dozen of the machines are on hold.

"Maybe they are jumping the gun. Maybe they are not," he said.

While Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump loyalist, began his job in June, Hogrogian said he understands that plans to reduce equipment were in place before DeJoy started.

Last Thursday, the Postal Service told Democratic senators in a letter that the service is working to maximize the efficiency of processing and sorting equipment. "In some instances, we may be able to shift or remove equipment as appropriate," the letter said. It came in response to questions raised during a meeting of DeJoy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Democratic lawmakers last week called on the Postal Service inspector general to investigate operational changes at the agency.

Keith Combs, an American Postal Workers Union local president for the Detroit district, said that not only does the machine removal slow down the operation, but it also makes it a lot more difficult to keep the mail-sorting operation going There's a smaller pool of secondary machines available if another machine breaks down.

Combs said four machines have been removed in his area, and the remaining machines need to be reprogrammed to run more routes, which also increases the time it takes to process and sort the mail.

As a result, Combs says, workers are being told they need to stop running the mail-sorting machines at a certain time -- to stop any overtime accrual.

Combs has received reports from his union members that they're being told to not worry about delayed mail and to "let the mail wait to another day."

A Postal Service spokesperson did not specifically respond to a question about that allegation but repeated the agency's commitment to fulfill its role in the election process.

That also occurred in Maine, according to American Postal Workers Union Local 458 President Scott Adams. Sorted mail was 10 minutes late to the mail trucks, according to Adams, and was left because of new Postal Service protocols to not hold trucks for late mail.

While most of these delays center on second- and third-class, or bulk, mail, union members have told Combs this has, at times, included first-class mail.

"The Postal Service must complete the mission," he says. "Every piece of mail must go."

This story has been updated to note that Vice previously reported the story.

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