The United States Postal Service started slowing its mail delivery on Friday, part of an effort by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to cut costs over the next 10 years.
The most widespread and significant change will affect first-class mail — things like letters, small packages, bills, and tax documents. Prior to the changes, customers throughout the US could expect first-class mail to reach its destination in one to three days; now, that timeframe will extend to between one and five days.
That “means mail delivery will be slower than in the 1970s,” for an estimated 40 percent of first-class mail, Paul Steidler, an expert on the postal service and supply chains at the Lexington Institute, told CBS.
That’s because the USPS is set to reduce its reliance on planes to transport mail as part of a broader cost-saving effort, instead shifting some deliveries within the continental US to ground transportation. According to the Washington Post, the Postal Service will reduce the amount of mail transported via plane from 20 percent to 12 percent.
According to an August notice from USPS in the Federal Register, using cargo planes and passenger aircraft to transport mail is more expensive and less reliable because of “weather delays, network congestion, and air traffic control ground stops.”
Who will be affected by the changes, and how?
The USPS said in its Federal Register notice that approximately 61 percent of first-class mail would still be delivered at its current standard — meaning, theoretically, that many customers wouldn’t notice much of a change in the delivery schedule.
But in practice, according to Steidler, the new policy will be “disastrous,” especially for certain populations like the elderly, people with disabilities, and those in rural areas for whom mail delivery is critical to their health care, financial security, and connection to the broader world.
“It’s the least fortunate who will be hurt hardest by this,” Steidler told CBS. “Everything in American society is getting faster, it seems, except for the mail delivery — which is now going to get slower.”
As Catherine Kim explained for Vox last April, mail delivery is a crucial lifeline for millions of Americans in rural areas. Since the USPS is mandated to deliver to any postal address in the US, no matter what — something private companies like FedEx and UPS aren’t required to do — the Postal Service in particular plays a vital role in ensuring rural communities, including tribal areas, have dependable access to mail service.
“USPS isn’t just a public service,” Twyla Baker, a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe in North Dakota, told Vox. “It’s a lifeline.”
Another crucial aspect of USPS service is its affordability — which is currently being undercut by price hikes on many first-class mail products. As the USPS points out, its flat-rate deliveries are still among the lowest prices in the industrialized world, and a three-cent increase in the price of a Forever stamp doesn’t seem like much.
But heftier — albeit temporary — price increases are set to take effect between October 3 and December 26, during USPS’s peak holiday delivery season, with package prices increasing as much as $1.
The Postal Service will also revise its rates more frequently going forward, according to the Washington Post: Prices could increase twice a year, in January and in July, as the agency looks to limit its budget shortfall.
Why is USPS making changes?
DeJoy, a major donor to former President Donald Trump who started his tenure as postmaster general in June 2020, outlined his plans for the Postal Service in March of this year, citing the need to make up for what he predicts will be a $160 billion shortfall over the next decade. DeJoy predicted in March that postage rate hikes will make up for about $44 billion of the expected shortfall, and package rate hikes will make up about $24 billion.
But the plan — like DeJoy himself — has its share of critics, including Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which oversees the Postal Service.
“While I understand Postal Service leadership’s desire to set long-term goals, I am concerned that several of the initiatives in this plan will harm service for folks across the country who rely on the Postal Service for prescription drugs, financial documents, running their small businesses, and more,” Peters said when DeJoy introduced the plan in March.
Peters also expressed concern that the proposed cuts, specifically the delivery delays and decreased hours at retail locations, would have a particular negative impact in rural and otherwise under-resourced communities.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) was even more forceful in his criticism, saying that DeJoy’s plan “guarantees the death spiral of the United States Postal Service.”
The independent Postal Regulatory Commission, or PRC, which serves as a regulatory body for the USPS, has also signaled that USPS slowdowns might not have the intended effect. The agency warned in July that while the price increases for first-class mail and packages made sense, the plan to slow delivery is based on “unproven assumptions,” and that the Postal Service would achieve only “paltry” savings from the plan.
What’s in store for the Postal Service going forward?
As Recode’s Adam Clark Estes explained in January, USPS has been dealing with financial difficulties for years.
According to Clark Estes:
Many of these can be traced back to 2006, when a Republican-led Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. This required USPS to prefund the health care benefits it promises future retirees in its workforce with annual payments of about $5.5 billion. This meant that even when the agency was operating at a profit, it looked like a financial disaster on paper. Then the Great Recession happened in 2008, causing first-class mail volume to plummet and slashing the Postal Service’s revenue.
Although the House of Representatives moved to change the prefunding mandate in February of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic took hold shortly thereafter, leaving the legislation to flounder in the Senate — and causing more delays at the Postal Service.
The USPS Board of Governors appointed DeJoy, a logistics CEO with no background at the Postal Service, as postmaster general that June. Under Trump, the Postal Service had already suffered; in trying to run the operation like a business, as opposed to a public service, Trump suggested raising prices as much as fourfold, and threatened to veto a $25 billion package — which passed the House with bipartisan support — for the agency as it struggled with delays due to Covid-19 and operational changes in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
Congressional Democrats saw DeJoy’s appointment as another blow to USPS, and his policies — like removing high-speed sorters from some postal facilities, decommissioning postal boxes, and cutting hours at retail locations — drew widespread criticism in the runup to the 2020 election, which relied heavily on mail-in voting in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
DeJoy paused the implementation of those changes ahead of the 2020 presidential election in response to public outcry, but he’s facing renewed pushback over this month’s changes to USPS services.
Opponents have called for DeJoy’s ouster practically since he took over the postmaster general position, citing conflicts of interest and negative changes in USPS performance under his leadership. While it’s possible for DeJoy to be removed from his position, that’s the remit of the USPS Board of Governors, which makes it unlikely to occur with the current board. Some Democrats have also urged President Joe Biden to remove Trump-appointed board members directly to clear the way for DeJoy’s firing.
“Your power to remove postal governors ‘for cause’ is absolute,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) wrote in an August letter to Biden. “It would be difficult to identify clearer cause than the refusal of board members to protect USPS from chaos and ruin.”