Column: Gloomy times for beleaguered Postal Service

  • Getty Images/TNS photograph -- Scott Olson Scott Olson

For the Valley News
Published: 8/3/2020 10:10:16 PM
Modified: 8/3/2020 10:10:12 PM

In May, President Donald Trump appointed as postmaster general of the United States a North Carolina businessman named Louis DeJoy, who got — or bought — the job by donating millions to Trump and the Republican party.

In the July 24 issue of Fortune magazine, Nicole Goodkind reveals that since taking office on June 15, DeJoy has done all he can to slow the delivery of mail as much as possible. Besides cutting overtime hours, which have up to now been required for nearly 20% of all postal work, he has done nothing to fill the gaps created by the nearly 40,000 postal workers who have had to quarantine for two weeks after exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Though I have seen no sign yet that mail service in the Upper Valley is slowing down, I’ve just discovered what the U.S. Postal Service can now do with so-called “priority mail.”

On July 22, I took a notarized document to the Hanover post office and paid just over $26 for a guarantee that it would be delivered by noon the next day to the office of a lawyer in Brooklyn, N.Y. When it did not arrive by that time, a tracking check revealed that it had reached the correct post office at 10:15 a.m. and was “out for delivery” at 10:26 a.m. At 11:48 a.m., however, delivery somehow “failed.” And though I rescheduled a delivery for July 28, at no time did the lawyer ever get even a notice of an attempt to deliver mail to the designated address.

In other words, there is no evidence that my document ever reached its destination at all.

As a result, I had to fill out the document again, have my signature re-notarized, and spend another $26 to send the document, this time via FedEx, which required a trip to Lebanon.

When I explained all this to Todd Fielder, the officer in charge of the Hanover post office, he promptly investigated the matter, showed me a map of the streets between the lawyer’s office and the Cadman Plaza Post Office, and apologetically offered an educated guess: Though the piece reached that post office in Brooklyn at 10:15 a.m., the carrier may have reckoned that traffic in the dense network of one-way streets would delay delivery past noon.

But according to Google maps, the distance involved here is just over 1 mile, and the longest time estimated for driving it is 10 minutes, far less than the 82 minutes between “out for delivery” and “delivery failed.” And even if all traffic on those streets had slowed to a standstill, what could explain the complete failure of any delivery at any time, even of a notice of an attempt to deliver mail to a first-floor office that regularly gets ordinary first-class mail?

In my case, the Postal Service’s failure to deliver my document did not seriously delay my transaction. But a week’s delay could have caused major disruption. For that reason, I can no longer trust the Postal Service to deliver priority mail on time. And to top it all off, I am still awaiting a refund of my $26 — because not even the officer in charge of the Hanover post office has the authority to approve it.

Possibly it awaits the approval of Postmaster General DeJoy.

My little problem is actually just a small symptom of a major malaise — a malaise that was manufactured by Congress. Ever since 2006, when the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act required the Postal Service to create a $72 billion fund to pay for its retiree health benefits over the next 75 years — something no other federal agency is asked to do — the service has been hemorrhaging red ink. And it is now being slowly squeezed to death. With Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as boa-constrictor-in-chief, the Trump administration seems bent on killing the Postal Service itself.

Though Congress has authorized the agency to borrow $10 billion as part of a coronavirus relief package, Ryan Cooper recently reported in The Week that Mnuchin is refusing to grant the money until the agency turns over much of its operations to him — something not included in the relief package, and probably illegal.

This whole situation is more than just an inconvenience to customers. Cooper noted that more than half of the Postal Service’s mail trucks are Grumman Long Life vans that have plainly outlived their long lives. Besides catching fire with alarming frequency, their lack of air conditioning has caused hundreds of mail carriers to suffer heat exhaustion over the last few years. Many have been hospitalized, and some have died.

The Postal Service is expected to be self-sufficient. Yet, as a public service on which all of us rely, it is just as vital to this country as roads, bridges, utility lines and police and fire departments. If we would never expect any one of these to be wholly self-supporting, why do we expect this of the Postal Service? If, for instance, we spend $180 billion a year on law enforcement and incarceration, why do we balk at spending a small fraction of those tax dollars to keep the mail coming, at prices affordable by all?

Having sent and received U.S. mail for most of my 81 years, I’m not at all surprised to learn that it enjoys an approval rating of 90%, which is why I write more in sorrow than in anger. Though many of us now do most of our communicating by email, we must still rely on the U.S. mail for some important tasks, and none is more important than the mail-in ballot I’ve just received (through the mail) for the upcoming New Hampshire primary.

And therein lies the political heart of the matter.

Besides the president’s loathing of public services generally, one of the chief reasons the Trump administration is attempting to squeeze the life out of the Postal Service is the president’s fear of mail-in voting, which he claims will open the gates to massive fraud.

There is no evidence for this claim. What he really fears is that mail-in ballots might facilitate massive voting by and for Democrats.

Which may be the only way to save the Postal Service.

James Heffernan lives in Hanover.

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