Above photo: A postal worker feeds mail into a high-speed letter-sorting machine. US Postal Service file photo.
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An order from U.S. Postal Service headquarters hasn’t stopped some mail-processing plants in Washington state from hooking up their high-speed letter-sorting machines again.
Despite a national order not to reinstall letter-sorting machines that had been dismantled over the past month, the Postal Service plants in Tacoma and Wenatchee have done just that, according to workers there.
Forty percent of the letter-sorting machines in the Seattle-Tacoma area had been disconnected by Tuesday, when the Postal Service announced a halt to a nationwide machinery purge until after the November election.
“I have seen a lot of machinery that has been taken out,” Postal Service truck driver Bob Bockman of Tacoma said.
The Tacoma plant lost eight of its 18 machines that sort and postmark the mail, according to workers there. The equipment was disconnected and pushed into a corner.
“Some of that machinery is going back in!” Bockman said.
By Wednesday night, five of the machines in Tacoma had been reconnected. Parts of two others had been scavenged and incorporated into the plant’s existing machines to boost their mail-sorting capacity.
These letter-sorting machines, long as a city bus, with power cords as thick as firehoses, can be shortened or lengthened in modular fashion.
The mail-processing plant in Wenatchee has also reconnected its one recently disconnected letter sorter, according to workers there.
The two plants’ machines were revived even though the Postal Service’s head of maintenance, Kevin Couch, had ordered plants nationwide on Tuesday evening not to do so.
Earlier on Tuesday, a regional manager had ordered the Tacoma and Wenatchee plants to get their machines ready to run again as soon as possible, using overtime if necessary.
Bockman and Don Cheney, an American Postal Workers Union representative for the Tacoma plant, said they had not heard of the do-not-reinstall order.
Ernie Swanson, the Postal Service’s Seattle-area spokesperson, did not respond to interview requests.
The reconnected machines in Tacoma and Wenatchee appear to be rare exceptions to a national pattern and to the stated goals of the Trump administration’s top postal official, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
News reports from Delaware, Michigan and Florida showed disassembled sorting machines in dumpsters or just sitting on the ground. CNN reported that, in at least nine states, no postal facilities except Tacoma had reassembled any machines.
In a U.S. Senate hearing Friday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters he had no intention of reinstalling the dismantled machines.
“They are not needed, sir,” DeJoy said.
DeJoy acknowledged that mail deliveries have slowed, but he attributed most of the slowdown to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thousands of postal workers have fallen ill.
“We all feel bad about what the dip in our service level has been,” DeJoy said.
DeJoy said the Postal Service would prioritize the delivery of election mail, which he called a “sacred duty.” He said he was “extremely, highly confident” that the service could deliver ballots promptly, even without a Congressional bailout.
DeJoy also said the Postal Service will make “dramatic changes,” aimed at cutting costs and generating revenue, after the November election.
Democrats in Congress intend to provide billions in emergency funding and to reverse recent cutbacks to postal equipment, overtime and retail hours.
Organizations as varied as AARP and the NAACP have protested those cutbacks.
“As the country faces an uphill battle against COVID-19 and systemic racism, we’re witnessing a significant onslaught against our postal system at a time when prompt mail delivery matters more than ever, especially for voters of color,” NAACP president Derrick Johnson said Thursday in a statement announcing the civil rights group’s lawsuit against the Postal Service.
DeJoy is scheduled to testify at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on Monday.
For now, postal machines at most plants in Washington state remain in political limbo.
Workers at Washington’s biggest mail-processing plant, just south of Seattle in Tukwila, say there are no plans to reinstall any machines.
Nine sorting and postmarking machines there have been disconnected.
“At least three of the machines have been completely dismantled,” Postal Service electronics technician Matt Olmsted said. “It would take a lot to get those back together.”
Olmsted said past attempts at downsizing and the current reorganization have generated mistrust between local post office staff and those at headquarters.
“It was to the point where our managers had to take pictures of the actual power cables lying on the floor to verify that they had been disconnected,” Olmsted said.
Internal documents obtained by KUOW show that the Postal Service, even before DeJoy took the helm in June, was planning to remove 969 mail-sorting and postage-canceling machines, one-fifth of the national total.
“We need those machines,” Burien mail clerk and postal workers union representative Myrna Umali said.
Umali said post offices and mail-processing plants are very short-staffed, with many at the Tukwila plant working 12 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week.
“I know that we can do the job,” she said. “If they are going to be cutting our machines, of course, that’s going to be a problem.”
“I just hope that the people don’t lose faith in our service that we’ve provided over 200 years,” Bockman said before getting back on the road with another truckload of mail.
This story has been updated.