Federal Employees News Digest
Union officer slams Postal Service’s new direction
- By Nathan Abse
- Aug 17, 2020
The Postal Service is under siege from the COVID pandemic, a slump in high-revenue first-class mail, a spike in low-margin package shipments, a hold on rescue funds from a recessed Congress and hostile White House. Now, its new chief is moving ahead with an ambitious reorganization that is already slowing service.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is imposing controversial remedies to address the organization’s cash-flow problems. Instead of expanding service, which unions favor, he is cost-cutting and restructuring the enormous organization. First, there’s a complex managerial consolidation, taking seven geographical areas down to four. DeJoy is also rearranging operations into three segments: Retail and Delivery, Logistics and Processing and Commerce and Business Solutions.
To find out how USPS’ rank-and-file sees the latest set of crises—COVID outbreaks, cost cuts and the mail-in ballot controversy—FEND’s Nathan Abse interviewed Kevin Tabarus, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, Local 300, which represents about 5,200 employees in the New York City metropolitan area. NPMHU nationally represents more than 47,000 members.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
News outlets and USPS employees are reporting that with DeJoy’s changes, mail is late already—a day, sometimes more, right?
Tabarus: Yes. You have to understand that management is changing very longstanding procedures. It’s like you brought up a child to wash his hands before dinner, and then suddenly you stop expecting that anymore. That’s the analogy. We have always, absolutely, had to get every piece of mail out as quickly as we can, every day.
Now suddenly management is saying, no, it’s more important that we stick to … what? … vehicle schedules. They are arguing that our vehicles must go out on time, no matter how much mail they have “left on the floor.” Management is saying that if mail is late because of that, it’s just “too bad.” The letter carriers—not my union’s people but the carriers—are now being sent out strictly at specific times. So now mail is getting delivered late.
How would you characterize what’s happening?
Tabarus: It’s just pitiful what these changes already are doing to my members and to the public. Mail delivery shouldn’t be run like a bus on a schedule. There are big fluctuations in volumes of mail, all the time. We provide an essential service: We deliver medicine, we deliver stimulus checks, and we deliver ballots.
Is the reorganization’s consolidation of geographical “areas” and elimination of overtime delaying mail delivery?
Tabarus: Yes. The reorganization, the stopping overtime results in delays to mail delivery because they are being rigid about new procedures. About cutting overtime, that’s a part of it. Here we are in the pandemic, and there is a need to get the mail out, and [management] is basically ordering it be left to wait. Our union has filed a grievance on this.
All of these problems are overlapping with the COVID-19, of course. To step back here, we have a two-tier workforce, as some of your readers may know. There are employees and there is the non-career workforce. During COVID, the Postal Service has requested that there be an unlimited number of non-career people available to cover absences due to the virus, especially. Given the epidemic too, workers who do come to work—according a memorandum of understanding—are supposed to be eligible for an unlimited amount of overtime. Yet these days, management is simply not honoring that promise, that MOU. So, that is a basis of our grievance.
Do you feel that the White House or your top bosses are listening at all?
Tabarus: No. In the executive branch, I don’t think so. In Congress, there are many from both sides of the aisle who are very supportive of us and our union. This White House doesn’t care.
Do you think the president’s dislike of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and maybe his newspaper, are motives for causing USPS delivery delays that might hurt that company?
Tabarus: Oh, yes. We believe that’s a big piece of it. I also understand that the new postmaster general is headed toward a push for raising postage rates—that could hurt Amazon, too. People here think it’s another tactic to damage Amazon.
We also hear, and this is not confirmed I should say, that another angle for why management is forcing USPS into worse service, is so it will lose certain contracts. And to get a loan it needs from the Department of the Treasury, USPS is constrained from using money on any capital improvements—it would be for operations only.
What is the advantage of damaging the Postal Service—even preventing capital improvements that would make operations more efficient?
Tabarus: It doesn’t make any practical sense. If you think about it, we could purchase new and upgraded machinery to process mail better. So not doing that doesn’t make any sense.
For mail handlers, what is the impact so far of the new orders? And have you seen any conflicts as a result?
Tabarus: So far, there’s not too much direct impact on our members. Mostly there are managerial and other structural changes starting. Top management wants to cut the number of managers and reduce and restructure different “geographical areas” from seven to four, it looks like. Next, they’ll change retail, to make that even more separate from those of us on the mail processing end. There will be less direct management at the district level. All kinds of reshuffling. Much of this is not going to impact my members that much.
We have the official story from USPS, but why do you think the Postal Service is struggling?
Tabarus: The Postal Service has experienced a large drop in volume in certain kinds of mail since COVID-19 began. The loss of revenue is hugely because of the drop in first-class mail, letters. Meanwhile, there’s an amazing jump in parcel volume.
As for how busy we are? It’s like Christmastime every day, God help us if they try to keep running things like this over actual Christmas. That means more work, but it doesn’t make up for the losses in revenue from first-class mail due to COVID.
There are media reports of mail handling machines being removed by management’s orders—why?
Tabarus: Management is taking some machines out. That’s not just in Iowa, where there was one news report. There are other reports from all over the country. I think there may be hidden agendas. Some of those machines could be used to process mail-in ballots for the national election this fall.
All of this is definitely suspect. Here they are, delaying the mail, and publicly devaluing and discrediting the service too—all of it just before an election. And management is—possibly—taking away needed capability of processing mail it may need during the national election.
Is management replacing that equipment with anything new or better?
Tabarus: No, they’re not.
Tell our readers your take on the USPS financial situation and how it affects your members?
Tabarus: I see it like this: We need the $25 billion that is on the table in the House pandemic relief bill for the Postal Service because of COVID-related costs. There are worker absences related to COVID, heavier demands and a need for supplemental workers.
The government has helped out a lot of other companies and agencies that have lost revenue. You take the airline industry: They lost a lot of revenue but also reduced their expenses, grounding flights due to lack of demand. We lost a lot of revenue, but we haven’t lost demand—no, to the contrary. We have added expenses and loss of revenue at the same time.
Somehow, some people still think we usually get revenue from the government. We do not get tax money. USPS has to pay its costs out of its own revenue, from postage sales, and increased parcel volume does not make up for the loss of regular first-class mail revenue, which was already declining but dropped off much more because of COVID. We make much more money by space for each letter than these boxes. This isn’t all just about Amazon. Our rates are the lowest of any national service, and we are the most efficient. We get the mail out and to all addresses. That’s what we do.
What do you see happening in the coming months?
Tabarus: We all see that the USPS is saying publicly they are prepared to handle the surge of national mail in ballots, when it comes time for that. I say, time will tell. The Postal Service really needs to be supported with more money. It needs to honor its agreements—employing and paying for needed overtime work.
I’m not saying management should hand it out like candy, but it is a need right now, because of the pandemic. There are a lot more parcels and a whole lot less first-class mail bringing in revenue, and COVID means paying for a lot of extra personal protective equipment and cleaning.
We also need to manage increased demands during the national election. And, we still have the problem of all the losses from paying out billions of dollars out of operations money to prefund retiree health benefits. No other major company or anyone else has had to prefund like that. We should never have been seen as losing money because of that.
What does NPMHU want at this point?
Tabarus: We want to see proper service restored to the Postal Service. We want to make sure we can continue to process mail six days a week—that’s what my people do. Our members work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, in the plants, sorting the mail, driving the forklifts. We want to make sure we can keep providing proper service to the American people.