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Postal Service Changes Spark Protest, Workers Say So Far Impacts In Montana Limited

People wearing masks line a street holding signs that say, "Senators: Support our postal service now!"
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Clancy resident Jane Amdahl supports the U.S. Postal Service at a Helena rally Aug. 25, 2020. Attendees urged the U.S. Senate to pass a USPS relief package following controversial changes within the agency.

Recent changes with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have embroiled the agency in a political firestorm, as some fear the post office is being used for partisan gain. Despite the rhetoric, YPR News’ Kevin Trevellyan spoke with industry workers who haven’t yet observed notable impact to USPS services in Montana. Trevellyan shares his reporting with Nicky Ouellet.

That was Kevin Trevellyan sharing his reporting with Nicky Ouellet. Kevin is YPR’s Report for America statehouse reporter.

Nicky Ouellet: Kevin, USPS has made a lot of headlines recently. Can you remind us what’s been happening?

Kevin Trevellyan: About two weeks ago, news broke that the agency was removing dozens of iconic blue mail collection boxes across Montana, including in Billings, Bozeman and Missoula. Shortly after we learned the Postal Service was shutting down sorting machines in Billings, Great Falls and Missoula. USPS isn’t releasing specific information on this, so we don’t know the exact extent of the changes. But following public backlash, Montana’s entire congressional delegation demanded an explanation for the equipment removals, which USPS then halted until after the election.

NO: Will any of that removed equipment be replaced?

KT: Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s office released a list of 14 collection boxes that would be reinstated, at least until the election, in Bozeman, Glendive, Helena, Lewistown, Livingston, Manhattan and Shelby. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy says decommissioned sorting machines won’t be reinstated, however.

NO: DeJoy has made some other changes that he calls cost cutting measures, like shifting delivery schedules, that have led to mail delays across the country. What kind of impact are we seeing from the changes that have happened in Montana?

KT: A USPS spokesperson says the agency has plenty of capacity to handle mail volume, even after equipment removals. And the postal workers I spoke to haven’t actually noticed much in the way of mail delivery delays. Here’s Helena American Postal Workers Union president DeDe Rhodes at a USPS rally last week.

“We’re extremely fortunate in this office, extremely fortunate. I have not seen impacts yet. In fact, we’ve actually gained an employee,” Rhodes said.

And despite getting calls from worried customers, Deb Senn with the Montana Letter Carriers Union hasn’t noticed any delays in Billings either. Both postal workers also say they’ve been working extended hours, despite reports that Postmaster DeJoy cut USPS overtime.

Still, Senn is concerned about the potential for local delays if equipment continues to be removed and if mail volume returns after the novel coronavirus pandemic slows down.

“If we end up losing more machines and stuff, it is going to hurt us badly. We will not be able to process mail to get it out in a timely manner,” Senn said.

Montana postal workers expect an influx of mail in November because most counties decided to hold an all mail ballot general election. But USPS warned Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton in July that some state election deadlines may not work with agency delivery schedules.

Montanans can register to vote up until Election Day. But as always, they’re urged to get their ballots in the mail a week early, or else drop them off in person at county elections offices and other designated spots, even in counties that opt into an all mail ballot election.

NO: Part of why these changes struck a nerve is because of the upcoming November election.

KT: Right. Democrats are worried these changes could impact how fast ballots are processed. And that was part of the message from last week’s USPS rally in Helena.

Janet Kosnik, former local president of the American Postal Workers Union, went a step further, saying these changes could be motivated by politics. The 30 year postal worker says it’s normal to remove a few collection boxes or sorting machines that aren’t getting a ton of traffic, but not to the degree we’ve seen lately.

“I cannot believe that all of those machines were not needed all at the same time,” Kosnik said.

Congress has held a rash of hearings on USPS changes. Democratic lawmakers are calling for more transparency on why specific equipment was targeted for removal. USPS says collection boxes are routinely removed based on use patterns, but the agency hasn’t publicly released that information with recent removals.

NO: So what’s happening now?

KT: The postal workers who rallied last week want the Senate to consider a $25 billion USPS relief package the House passed a few days earlier. USPS has been losing money for years, in part because of pension requirements and a drop in mail volume. So workers say the agency needs some help to provide timely services. Kosnik noted that airline companies and other industries have received coronavirus assistance over the last few months.

“But not the Postal Service. And the Postal Service serves every household in the country. It touches everyone,” Kosnik said.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney also attended the rally and attacked his opponent in the gubernatorial race, Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who voted against the House relief bill.

“We’re counting on you to stand up for us, the state is counting on you to stand up for the Postal Service, and you failed. Our veterans deserve better, our rural communities deserve better, our seniors deserve better,” Cooney said.

NO: How did Gianforte explain his “no” vote?

KT: Gianforte said the coronavirus and economy take precedence as emergencies.

“Throwing more money at the problem won’t solve it. We need a bipartisan solution that fixes the Postal Service’s long term issues and ensures Montanan’s mail is delivered on time,” Gianforte said.

NO: Where do Montana’s senators stand on USPS relief?

KT: Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who’s in a tight reelection race, said in a prepared statement that the House bill misses the mark. He’s instead pushing a separate $25 billion USPS relief bill introduced in July. That legislation lacks some of the House bill’s extra provisions, like banning further removal of collection boxes and sorting machines.

Sen. Tester, a Democrat, is also a cosponsor on that bill. In a press release, Tester called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to immediately bring lawmakers back from recess and pass the House relief bill, which the Republican has vowed to block.

NO: Kevin, thanks for sharing your reporting.

KT: Of course.