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Postal chief, facing political furor, backs off service changes until after election

Postmaster General Louis Dejoy arrives at a meeting at the office of Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on August 5, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced Tuesday that he would pause changes to U.S. Postal Service operations until after the November election, following an intensifying backlash from lawmakers in both parties.

DeJoy, who took office in June after his appointment by President Donald Trump, had been pursuing a number of changes, including the elimination of overtime for many employees. That sparked concerns about potential delays in handling what is expected to be an unprecedented volume of mail ballots.

Most controversially, the Postal Service recently removed sorting machines from facilities in Kansas City, Wichita and other cities as part of a modernization plan.

DeJoy said that no additional mail processing equipment will be removed, no sorting facilities will be closed, retail hours will stay unchanged and overtime pay for employees will continue to be approved as needed.

“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall. Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards,” DeJoy said in a statement.

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“The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and election day. The 630,000 dedicated women and men of the Postal Service are committed, ready and proud to meet this sacred duty.”

In addition to concerns about the election, the policy changes spurred bipartisan criticism about the potential impact to rural communities, especially for seniors and others who rely on the Postal Service for prescriptions.

The Postal Service delivered more than 1.2 billion prescriptions last year, including the bulk of the Veterans Administration’s prescriptions.

Sen. Jerry Moran, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, pointed to concerns about prescription deliveries in a Monday letter to DeJoy.

“Serving a rural state like Kansas, I understand well the crippling impact that losing the Postal Service would have on rural communities across the country,” Moran said.

“Kansans have expressed grave concern with recent mail delays, especially those waiting for prescription deliveries as timely delivery is often a matter of life and death.”

The comments from Moran and other GOP lawmakers reflect how politically precarious DeJoy’s agenda has become for Republicans. The Postal Service consistently ranks as one of the most popular institutions in the country.

DeJoy’s policy reversal comes ahead of a Saturday vote in the U.S. House on legislation that would provide emergency $25 billion aid for the Postal Service and block DeJoy from pursuing operational changes.

Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., whose mother has worked for the Postal Service for two decades, called for DeJoy’s ouster last week in the face of the changes, which had coincided with President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on mail voting.

Davids said DeJoy’s announcement is insufficient, noting that it does not address whether the sorting machines removed last week will be returned to their prior location.

“These are the consequences of this Administration’s attempts to sabotage the Postal Service for their own political gain. It’s why I spoke out against the Postmaster General’s reckless policies, and why I believe he needs to be replaced with new, nonpartisan leadership,” Davids said in a statement Tuesday.

“I’m glad that he has heard these calls and the millions of Americans who are rightfully outraged by his actions and is suspending changes to the Postal Service — but this alone is not enough. And it is not clear whether he will restore any of the mail sorting machines that have already been removed.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said that Congress still needs to move forward with legislation to shore up the Postal Service’s funding and to codify DeJoy’s promise to halt the changes into law.

“Millions of Americans rely on the USPS to deliver life-saving medications, Social Security benefits, mail-in ballots, and other critical items — and attempts to slow down delivery would have devastating consequences for communities across the country,” said Cleaver, a co-sponsor of the bill the House will take up on Saturday.

The Postal Service warned election officials in Missouri and other states that voters would need to mail their ballots at least a week before the Nov. 3 election to ensure it arrives by Election Day deadlines.

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s office has said Kansas, which accepts ballots postmarked on Election Day if they arrive within three days of the election, did not receive a similar guidance.

The Postal Service did not immediately clarify whether the guidance to states would change now that DeJoy has paused the operational changes. It also did not immediately say what would happen to the processing machines that were already removed.

Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said DeJoy “must outline a comprehensive plan for restoring the status quo at the Postal Service by replacing mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes that have already been moved and more.”

She called on DeJoy to “work with election officials to outline plans that restore public confidence and ensure that the Postal Service will meet historic needs of this election cycle.”

Chris Bentley, president of National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 297, hadn’t seen DeJoy’s announcement when The Star reached him by phone early Tuesday afternoon. But he said he was glad to hear the news.

“That sounds like good news to me for postal workers and for the public who need their mail,” Bentley said.

Bentley, whose union covers Kansas and part of Missouri, said Friday that mail processing machines in both states had been removed earlier this summer — part of a decision by the Postal Service to decommission hundreds of machines nationwide.

On Tuesday, Bentley reiterated that recent changes by USPS, including the removal the machines and restrictions on overtime, had led to a slowdown in delivery times.

“I think that the national reaction when the news got out is probably what forced him into this revised position and that’s a good thing,” he said. On-time mail delivery is important, Bentley said, adding that the Postal Service has been the most-trusted federal agency for years.

“And hopefully we can continue that,” Bentley said.

The Postal Service relies on sales of postage for revenue rather than tax dollars. It has an experienced a fiscal crisis in recent years, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers of both parties have expressed support for providing emergency aid to the agency in the next COVID-19 relief bill, an idea which Trump has previously panned.

“Where I grew up everybody believed the federal government should defend the country and deliver the mail. You could get into a debate on almost anything else. All Missourians, especially seniors, veterans, and people in rural communities, depend on timely, reliable mail delivery,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, told The Star Monday.

Blunt, Moran and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., are all co-sponsors to a Senate bill that would provide the agency $25 billion in emergency aid.

Blunt said Tuesday that DeJoy’s decision to pause operational changes was the right move and said after the election the Postal Service leadership should work on a plan to ensure the agency’s long-term solvency.

Betsy Huber, president of National Grange, a national group that advocates on behalf of farmers and rural residents, said in a statement that DeJoy “heard the outcry of people all across the country and political spectrum” and made the right decision to delay operational changes.

In an interview, Huber said speedy mail delivery is important when it comes to paying bills and receiving essential medications on time.

“That’s a real concern. Especially during this pandemic, I think, many more people are ordering prescriptions as well as everything else online and having it mailed or shipped to their house,” Huber said.

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©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.