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Democrats called to save the Postal Service, but now they’re in power and struggling to help the failing agency

Small-business owners and residents say the issue has fallen out of the national spotlight and off local legislators’ list of concerns.

A Post Office at 25th and W. Snyder in South Philadelphia.
A Post Office at 25th and W. Snyder in South Philadelphia.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Amid financial and political turmoil that deteriorated mail delivery to historically low levels, Americans rallied behind the U.S. Postal Service in 2020. Workers, activists, and Democratic legislators gathered to #SavetheUSPS. Dozens of attorneys general sued the postmaster general, and federal judges ruled the operational changes contributing to mail delays be reversed ahead of the election.

In the end, the agency did its job. The USPS delivered 543 million pieces of election and political mail, including 135 million ballots. Mission accomplished, right?

Not really.

The Postal Service is still failing, with cities including Philadelphia seeing their worst delays yet. But Democrats’ hands are tied when it comes to solutions, and delays may worsen with more operational changes on the horizon.

Small business owners and residents who rely on the mail for medicine, checks, and important documents say that they’re suffering in silence and that the issue has fallen out of the national spotlight and off local legislators’ list of concerns.

“I don’t feel like Congress has the understanding of what small businesses are going through,” said Anjali Bhatia, cofounder of Philly-based Lash Bee Pro, which produces and ships supplies for eyelash extensions to salons across the country.

President Joe Biden cannot simply fire Postmaster General Louis DeJoy — that’s up to the now Republican-controlled board of governors. Biden has three board vacancies to fill, but congressional Democrats are pressuring him to remove all board members and install a new slate that ousts DeJoy, a Trump donor whose cost-cutting measures last summer led to a decline in mail performance.

A White House spokesperson said Biden is focused on filling these vacancies, but did not provide specifics on a timeline.

» READ MORE: Checks are being stolen from Postal Service mailboxes, raising concerns about the blue boxes’ security

As soon as next week, DeJoy is expected to roll out new changes, including service cuts, price hikes depending on region and distance, retail-hour reductions, and lower delivery expectations.

“If we don’t speak up now, this is a doomed institution,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.), who sent a letter to Biden last month demanding he fire the postal board of governors and replace DeJoy. Pascrell said he was meeting with the White House on Tuesday to discuss Postal Service issues, but declined to specify further.

“We need dramatic change. Not window dressing,” Pascrell said.

In a statement, the Postal Service apologized for the inconvenience caused by delays, and said the agency has “returned to pre-peak operational conditions in most areas and we fully anticipate continued improvements in service performance.”

That may be true in some places, but in Philadelphia, delays persist, and the USPS has not yet released any performance data for 2021. Just last month, the agency terminated upward of 50 Philadelphia staffers, mostly mail handlers and package sorters originally hired temporarily during the pandemic, despite having signed an agreement with the American Postal Workers Union to make them career employees. In December, in Eastern Pennsylvania, less than a third of the mail was delivered on time, according to data collected by the New York Times.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.), chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee, which oversees USPS, said the subject should be a priority for Congress but “has not been.”

“There is a lot of lip service, but there hasn’t been a lot of action,” he said in an interview.

What can be done?

The Postal Service is a self-financing, independent entity within the executive branch.

The agency is run by a nine-member board of governors that appoints the postmaster general and deputy postmaster general. The board is designed to be nonpolitical, with members serving seven-year terms and no more than five from one party. The president can remove members “only for cause,” which is not clearly defined, and only the board can replace the postmaster general.

On Tuesday, former labor leader and Obama administration official Ron Bloom was elected chair, marking a partial shakeup.

Former President Donald Trump appointed four Republicans to the board, and one Democrat currently serves. Biden has three vacancies to fill, and can also replace Bloom, who’s serving a one-year holdover term. Filling those slots could give the board the edge to unseat DeJoy, but the positions require Senate confirmations, which could take months.

Plus, with only the slimmest majority in the Senate, Democrats are balancing bipartisanship, making it unlikely for Biden to make any sweeping changes.

Last year, the USPS became an unusual partisan flash point. DeJoy — a former logistics executive who has donated millions to the Republican Party, including the Trump campaign — installed a series of cost-cutting measures that slashed overtime, delivery trips, and removed mail sorting machines. Democrats, supported by Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting, accused DeJoy of deliberately slowing the mail ahead of the election. By August, dozens of legislators had called for his resignation. DeJoy eventually suspended the changes.

Still, the agency lost $9.2 billion in 2020.

“[DeJoy] should not be in that position anymore,” said Rep. Andy Kim (D., N.J.). “His decision not to resign is an indication that he seeks to do more harm to the USPS while in office.”

Last Monday, the House reintroduced a bipartisan bill, cosponsored by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), that would eliminate the 2006 act requiring the agency to pre-fund 75 years’ worth of retirees’ health benefits — a cost of about $100 billion, and an obligation no other government entity faces. The mandate has contributed to nearly 90% of the agency’s losses. Between 2013 and 2018 it accounted for 100% of the losses. When excluding those debts, the Postal Service has been profitable for most of the last decade.

» READ MORE: Still waiting for packages that were mailed in December? It could be a while.

The bill was introduced last year and died in the Senate, but now with a Democratic majority, it may push through. The Washington Post also reported that lawmakers are, in an unusual move, considering giving the Postal Service a nearly $100 billion credit for years of pension overpayments.

The Postal Service has also been largely excluded from coronavirus relief bills, aside from a $10 billion loan forgiven in December. Relief for the agency is not included on Biden’s upcoming package.

“We need revenue stabilization just like the airline industry did, just like the restaurant industry did, just like small businesses did,” said Connolly. “I don’t understand why the Postal Service … is not eligible and in fact high on the list for some assistance as we finalize another COVID relief bill.”

But financial assistance can go only so far. It could take months to push something through and even longer to have an impact on local delivery.

Philadelphia-area Democrats Mary Gay Scanlon, Dwight Evans, and Brendan Boyle said they continue to hear from constituents about delays.

“We got to take the action and show that we mean what we say,” said Evans.

Jane Nadelson, the owner of K9NWSource, a Chester County-based company that sells supplies for dog scent training products, said about 45 orders she mailed in mid-January are stuck in limbo. Nadelson runs the business out of her basement and relies solely on internet sales and USPS shipping. Customers are complaining and requesting refunds, or they’re switching to competitors in places where delays aren’t so persistent, she said.

Nadelson, 64, said it feels as if legislators are not viewing this as a top priority.

“A lot more businesses will go out of business by ignoring this,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article used a preliminary election mail total. The total pieces of political mail USPS delivered is 543 million.