After four federal judges blocked additional operational changes to the U.S. Postal Service and ordered it to reverse the changes that had been made, South Jersey and Delaware processing and delivery plants have started reinstalling some of the mail sorting machines that had been removed.
But in Philadelphia, nothing has changed. No machines in the Lindbergh Boulevard facility have been replaced, local union leaders and employees say, trucks are still being forced to leave on time, with or without the mail, and mail delivery is still being delayed.
In fact, despite federal court orders, more operational changes have occurred in the Philadelphia, South Jersey, and Delaware processing facilities in the last week, according to union employees at all three locations.
Employees at the Southwest Philadelphia, New Castle, and Bellmawr plants were told that mail sorting machines must stop sorting the mail by 5 a.m., whether all the mail has been sorted or not. Typically, the machines start sorting mail around 1 p.m., and don’t stop until the job is done. The time a machine usually finishes varies greatly and depends on the volume of mail that day.
The goal, employees believe, is to make sure all the mail makes it onto the delivery trucks by the time they need to leave, so that no mail is left behind. But instead, at least in Philadelphia, it’s resulting in thousands of letter pieces going unsorted, said Laurence Love, an assistant clerk craft director who operates mail sorting machines at the Philadelphia plant.
“I’ve been here for 35 years and we have never had any directive to shut off a machine,” said Love.
The massive sorting machines are programmed to sort mail based on address and route, making it easy for carriers to grab their bins of mail and hit the road. Carriers are usually only left to hand sort a few letters and flats that are unable to go through the machines.
But by 5 a.m., those items that haven’t been sorted yet are then only divided by route, not address, leaving some carriers with hundreds of pieces to sort themselves.
Not every machine has unsorted mail, but those sorting zip codes with heavy volumes, are struggling to finish, Love said. Last Sunday, which is usually the Postal Service’s heaviest mail volume day, at least 20,000 pieces of mail were left unsorted across four machines.
“When you have to hand sort thousands of pieces of mail, that is delaying the mail seriously,” he said.
The USPS did not respond to requests for comment. Union leaders say it’s unclear where the order for this change originated, but they were alarmed it was being made across multiple districts.
In a statement late Thursday, Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the changes “deeply concerning” and said his office is investigating the matter and will take additional action in court if necessary.
“These operational changes were made illegally and the courts have spoken — stop it. My office is investigating this situation and any others we are alerted to while our injunction on these practices is in place,” Shapiro said.
Carriers across the city said they haven’t felt the impacts of the change yet. Over time, though, it could delay carriers' work, said Frank Bollinger, business agent for the South Jersey Area Local.
Given the expected parcel increase surrounding the election and coming holidays, the timing of the change is especially concerning, Bollinger said.
“It has the potential of being a very major deal,” he said. “It can build up and lead to mail being left behind and mail being delayed."
In the last three weeks, four federal judges, including one in Pennsylvania, granted preliminary injunctions that bar the Postal Service and its leader, Louis DeJoy, from making any more operational changes. The judges ordered that the changes that had been made — which included the cutting of overtime, elimination of extra transportation trips to complete mail delivery, and the removal of mail sorting machines — be reversed.
Some postal employees have said that their working conditions have improved in the last two weeks. Overtime is being approved, work days are not as long, and for the most part, post offices are clearing their mail for the day. In the facilities where sorting machines are being reinstalled, mail is being processed faster.
Delaware’s sole processing center in New Castle was alerted last week that two of the six barcode sorting machines that were removed this summer will be reassembled, said Trina Wynn, president of Wilmington Area Local 152.
By just returning two of the machines, Wynn said, processing speed has “dramatically improved.”
South Jersey’s processing and distribution center in Bellmawr will see three sorting machines reinstalled of the seven that were disassembled, said Bollinger.
“Things are running a little bit smoother,” he said, adding that no mail is being left behind.
At least 671 sorting machines — or about 10% of the agency’s inventory — were removed this summer as part of a long-term plan to adjust to the declining use of letter mail. By comparison, 125 machines were decommissioned in 2018, and 186 were taken offline in 2019.
It’s unclear how many machines are being reinstalled across the country, but DeJoy’s lawyers have pointed out that some machines have already been “generally disassembled for their usable parts” and cannot be returned to service.
The Lehigh Valley’s processing center in Bethlehem Township lost three machines and has not been alerted that any will be replaced, said Andy Kubat, president of Lehigh Valley Area Local. One has been sent to the scrap yard and cannot be salvaged, he said.
He said reinstalling machines would greatly improve their ability to process all the mail, especially now that political mail is beginning to increase.
“I know the employees are going to do everything they can to make sure those ballots get delivered,” said Kubat, who works as a clerk in the processing center. “But we are going to see an unprecedented increase in the number of mail in ballots in Pennsylvania that we didn’t see in 2016.”
In Philadelphia, none of the nine sorting machines that were decommissioned this summer are set to be reassembled, said Nick Casselli, president of Philly’s American Postal Workers Union Local 89.
“They’re not disassembling more machines, but they’re also not putting any back together,” said Casselli. “Nothing has been done to improve our processing."
Mail is not piling up on the floors as it was in July and August, carriers across Philadelphia said, but some are wary to assume that one good week indicates systemic improvements.
“We barely stay afloat,” said a North Philadelphia letter carrier who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “But things are getting better.”
Still, residents are reporting days-long delays in items they’re expecting. This is likely stemming from delays inside the city’s processing center, Casselli said.
Trucks are still ordered to leave on time, with or without mail, Love said. Because of that, the processing center’s staffing shortage, loss of machines, and now a hard sorting deadline, mail delays are not improving.
“We have tons of mail that we don’t get out,” said Love, the clerk. “Tons of flat mail is being delayed, and tons of first-class letters are being delayed.”
And residents are still feeling the impacts.