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Despite Postmaster's Reversal, There's Not Enough Mail To Bring Back Sorting Machines In Kansas City

Antoinette Robinson is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local in greater Kansas City.
Frank Morris
Antoinette Robinson is President of the American Postal Workers Union Local in greater Kansas City, and works as a clerk in the big USPS processing facility here.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy says workers have stopped dismantling mail-sorting machines, but those sorters already hauled out to the curb will likely never be used again.

Taking a truckload of random mail and sorting it so that each piece gets to the right place is a huge job. That job happens on an industrial scale at the U.S. Post Office Processing and Distribution Center just off Truman Road in Kansas City, Missouri.

The large, four-story facility can’t handle as much mail as it could just a week or so ago. That is when the U.S. Postal Service hauled off three delivery barcode sorters. The machines cost about half a million dollars when new and can sort 30,000 pieces of mail an hour.

“That’s a huge deal,” says Antoinette Robinson, President of the American Postal Workers Union Local in greater Kansas City. “To remove machines during a pandemic when everybody is relying on the mail, and now we have people wanting to vote by mail.”

Robinson points out that mail-in ballots would be sorted on these machines. The distribution center can still sort mail. It has enough machines still in service to handle the current volume and the expected surge in the mail for the election. But workers have been removing machines across the county.

The decommissioning plan dates back to May. The post office had planned to shut down close to 700 sorting machines nationwide, about 10% of its sorting capacity.

Deleo Freeman, who leads the American Postal Workers Union in Cleveland, Ohio, says the plan as he understood it initially was to just mothball the machines, unplugging and wrapping them in tarps. He says that changed when Louis DeJoy took over the Postal Service in June.

“They were tarped initially, then they were dismantled, then they were put out back,” Freeman says of at least four machines decommissioned in Cleveland. “They’re done.”

There is a rationale for scrapping some of the sorting machines. The volume of the so-called “flat mail” that goes through them has dropped by 30% since March. That follows a long decline in physical letters, cards and magazines being sent through the mail.

But despite the lower volume, mail has been moving sluggishly this summer. This in part due to DeJoy’s recent cutbacks including strictly limiting overtime, scrapping mail drop boxes, shortening post office hours and imposing rigid delivery schedules.

The Postal Service alerted states that slowdowns could stall delivery and even invalidate some mail-in ballots.

That led some Democrats to accuse the Trump administration of trying to gum up the mail before the election. States lined up to sue, and politicians, such Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, got an earful.

“Well, the post office polls at 90 plus approval. I'm not sure that sirloin steak and lobster polls in the nineties,” quips Cleaver.

On Tuesday, Postmaster General DeJoy relented, suspending the cost-cutting measures until after the election. The U.S. Postal Service declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a written statement promised that, retail hours won’t change, overtime will be restored, and that mail processing equipment will stay put.

What’s not clear is how many machines have already been taken apart and hauled away.

But, that’s not the most pressing issue. American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein says the Postal Service has suffered massive losses during the pandemic and needs $25 billion soon.

“If it's not addressed, the post office, literally sometime early next year, is projected and predicted to run out of money,” warns Dimondstein.

The House is set to vote Saturday on emergency funding for the post office. Congressman Cleaver is strongly in favor.

It’s unclear if the Senate will act. President Donald Trump, who’s long been critical of the post office and mail-in voting, has -- at various times -- both supported and opposed more funding.

If the Postal Service does eventually get that money, it's likely that new sorting machines won’t be at the top of its shopping list.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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