The share of one popular class of mail arriving at least a day late in Maine doubled for a time this summer as the U.S. Postal Service pursued cost-savings measures, though delays look to have subsided nationally after the agency halted heavily criticized changes.
Local postal unions in southern Maine raised alarm about isolated incidents that delayed mail in August, while Mainers across the state reported unexplained delays. But postal data obtained by the Bangor Daily News in a Freedom of Information Act request are the first proof of a systematic decline in service in July and August compared to the same period last year.
The data only include certain types of mail. The causes of the problems are not reflected in the data. While absences of postal workers due to the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters could explain delays nationally, neither applies to Maine, a state hit less hard by the virus.
“It’s a reasonable assumption to think that this is a direct result of the Postal Service’s operational policy changes,” said Michael Plunkett, CEO of the Association for Postal Commerce, an advocacy group for businesses that use the mail heavily.
Delays were not unique to Maine. In the first week of August, just 83 percent of single-piece First-Class Mail was delivered on time here, compared to 93 percent that same week in 2019. Nationally, 79 percent was delivered on time compared to 92 percent the prior year. In the three northern New England states, 84 percent was on time compared to 92 percent a year before.
The drop was sharper for periodicals, with 72 percent delivered on time in July and August in Maine compared to 89 percent over the same period in 2019. Postal performance data only covers First-Class Mail, marketing mail, periodicals and catalogs. It does not include Priority Mail. It is based on a large sample of mail, though not every single letter is tracked.
Mark Seitz, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 92, noted there are a range of scenarios that can result in mail delays. But the timing of the decline in performance coincides with changes made under new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that received pushback from unions and lawmakers. He suspended many of them in August.
Scott Adams, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 458, said the significant decline in service over a period of weeks in July and August seemed related to changes including a ban on late or extra trips, which meant that postal vehicles were required to leave on time regardless of whether mail had been fully loaded.
“The impact of the delivery, especially this time of year, I can’t relate it to the pandemic because it would have happened earlier in the year as well,” Adams said. “I think the picture we’re looking at is, Louis DeJoy came in and said, ‘Absolutely no late trips, no extra trips.’”
The changes, which DeJoy said were to help the cash-strapped agency save money, sparked concerns that slowdowns could interfere with mail-in voting this fall. The postmaster general told lawmakers in August that he was committed to ensuring ballots arrived on time. A month earlier, the agency sent letters to 46 states, including Maine, warning ballots not sent 15 days in advance might arrive late.
Maine postal unions spoke up in early August after tens of thousands of letters were delayed in southern Maine. Earlier in the summer, two sorting machines were disassembled at the Scarborough processing center, though one was moved to Hampden. The agency has also floated overtime cuts, although Maine workers are still working overtime, Adams said.
Data from the postal service presented in a congressional briefing last month showed all types of mail slowing in the first few weeks of July, though it seemed to recover in late August. This week, a federal judge temporarily blocked operational changes to the postal service following a lawsuit from more than a dozen states, citing the effects of slowdowns on mail-in voting.
The postal service did not answer specific inquiries about the Maine data this week, but noted in a Friday statement that service performance indicators had improved in the first week of September, with about 89 percent of First-Class Mail delivered on time nationally.