Dead Birds, Missing Drugs, and Lost Human Remains: USPS Workers Blame a ‘Manufactured Crisis’

Dead Birds, Missing Drugs, and Lost Human Remains: USPS Workers Blame a ‘Manufactured Crisis’
Illustration: Jim Cooke / Gizmodo

When Ella’s monthly supply of modafinil didn’t arrive in the mail in late August, she wasn’t sure what to do. They’re not like the pills she takes for her allergies or her blood pressure. “Without it, I might not be able to get up for three days,” she said. A 65-year-old on a fixed income, Ella suffers from normocytic anemia and multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue being one of the more pronounced symptoms of the latter. The drug, modafinil, also known as Provigil, is about the only thing that keeps her going.

“There were times when I would be in bed and I just literally had no strength. Sometimes you don’t even feel like eating because that means you have to move,” she said. For the past year, her prescription has appeared in her mailbox like clockwork, but when it didn’t, she couldn’t just go to the pharmacy for more. Modafinil is a controlled substance, and very expensive besides; $US3,000 ($4,094) or more out of pocket. Just trying to get it replaced was stressful, and for someone with Ella’s condition, stress can be a killer. “It can cause paralysis,” she said. “Things will start shutting down in my body.”

She called her post office to try and find the missing meds. “I told them, ‘This has got to stop happening. Y’all are messing with our lives, really,” she said. “That medication, you can’t just stop taking it.” Ella stretched her supply as long as she could, but it eventually ran out. After that, she had to borrow pills from another patient. “I don’t like doing that,” she said. “Nobody should have to do that.” A week later, the post office still hadn’t found her medicine.

In interviews over the past two weeks, nearly a dozen U.S. Postal Service employees said they’d heard of someone like Ella, either along routes they work or from carriers they assist; someone who had a piece of important, sometimes irreplaceable mail go missing; a vital medication, a check sorely needed to cover the rent, or the cremated remains of a loved one. Similar stories have been reported nationwide, and the cause is no mystery: Louis DeJoy, a GOP mega-donor who was appointed postmaster general in June, enacted sweeping procedural changes in July that resulted in massive backlogs of mail across the country. Among the changes were cuts in overtime and requirements that mail carriers return to their offices on time, even if their routes are unfinished. The changes and the backlogs they created continue to stir fears over the safe delivery of American ballots ahead of the November 3 election.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard about the dead birds? We’re getting that here, too,” a letter carrier from Boston said, recalling a story that went viral last month about hundreds of birds that died in USPS custody. “I know people laugh about the junk mail and the ads and stuff, but we still do a lot of really, really important specialised stuff. And that’s the stuff that they’re losing track of. Things like bees and birds and things that are time-sensitive. And that wasn’t happening before.”

“Literally on my route last week, I got the birds and they weren’t chirping. They’re always chirping” the carrier said. “We knew they were dead.”

Out of the dozen USPS workers who spoke to Gizmodo, none of them wished to be named. All said they feared retaliation on the job. They include mail carriers and handlers, clerks, and one supervisor — all of whom say they could be fired for speaking to reporters. Several shared documents explicitly threatening their jobs over any contact with the press.

USPS employees in Nevada, Texas, Massachusetts, California, West Virginia, and Illinois all shared similar stories of missing packages and mail going undelivered for days at a time. Packages that used to arrive at distribution centres neatly stacked in easy-to-move boxes are now strewn about as if someone threw them in the back of the truck. Machines that only weeks ago were helping sort flat mail and letters now sit unplugged on plant floors wrapped in caution tape. All the mail delivered to a post office used to be out before the end of the day. “Moving the mail” has always been the top priority. Now, that’s no longer the case.

Earlier this summer, a USPS worker in West Virginia said he learned his supervisors had ordered the removal of one of only two machines in the state that sorts packages. While there are fewer letters being mailed each year, there’s been no reduction in packages. The decision, he said, made no sense. “Naturally, we questioned it, but they didn’t give us answers,” he said. Only after the media began focusing on DeJoy’s flawed plans did his bosses rush in and order the machine reconnected. “I think they’re gonna wait until the election is over and then pull it out,” the worker said. “I can’t imagine what’s going to happen at that point.”

Nearly 700 machines that automate the sorting of letters and flat mail had been slated for decommissioning this year, plans that were put in motion long before the coronavirus led to unprecedented volumes in mail. But USPS workers say other changes are more directly responsible for the backlog, including the decision to prohibit mail handlers, clerks, and truck drivers from putting in extra hours. The overtime, workers say, is necessary to make up for delivery delays.

DeJoy claimed before a Senate panel on August 24 that he hadn’t made any cuts to overtime. “I did not direct the cutback on hours at any of our postal offices, and finally I did not direct the elimination or any cutback in overtime,” he said. But several workers said that he’s lying. “I was going into overtime last Friday and they sent me home after two hours, even though parcels were stacked high,” a clerk in Chicago said. Another worker in Charleston, West Virginia, said he’d seen cuts across the board: “And because of that, there’s a lot of mail that’s not getting out these doors.”

DeJoy signalled in mid-August, ahead of his Senate testimony, that he was halting further changes until the election is over, a decision that came after no fewer than 20 attorneys general announced plans to file lawsuits against him. Many workers insist the damage is already done.

Letter carriers in six states shared roughly the same story: Trucks delivering their mail had started showing up only 30-50% full. “They’re leaving mail in the warehouses and some of it’s just disappearing completely,” one said. When the mail shows up in the morning, it’s supposed to already be sequenced according to a carrier’s route. That’s not always the case anymore. The carriers’ jobs had already gotten harder, they said, because the number of packages daily had tripled, at least, since March. The volume of mail during the coronavirus is roughly comparable to the holidays — except it hasn’t slowed down in five months. “It’s been Christmas-like,” a carrier in Nevada said, describing the volume of mail, only unlike the holidays, there are no extra helpers on staff. And some carriers have contracted the virus, further depleting the workforce.

Multiple carriers said there are five to six routes unassigned right now in their cities. The consequence is that some carriers are working one-and-a-half or even two routes a day even though their hours haven’t changed. “Inevitably, stuff starts falling through the cracks,” one said.

“Before [DeJoy] took over, things were running smoothly,” a Boston carrier said. After DeJoy started, overtime was being very strictly managed. “They were being really strict, so they would leave entire routes sitting on the floor for two days. Again, this is stuff that would get you fired before.” After a day off, carriers would come in to find double or triple the mail.

Overtime sounds too expensive for the cash-strapped service, which is over $US160 ($218) billion in debt, but as a former employee of 30 years explained, allowing employees to work overtime is actually considered a cost-saving measure. It’s cheaper to pay workers to show up six days a week, they said, than to hire more employees and pay for the extra benefits. (Overtime pay can also pad out mail carrier salaries by thousands — which may be in jeopardy if the alleged cutbacks on hours continue.) Many workers say they’re used to the arrangement. Hard work is part of the culture. What they can’t abide is the sudden drop in service.

“I had a customer come up to me crying,” a Boston carrier recalled. “They had cremated remains. We get a lot of that actually. People overnight cremated remains and the tracking info just disappeared for over a week and she didn’t know where it was.”

The same carrier described the situation as “artificial chaos.” A Seattle mail handler called it a “manufactured crisis.” “We have everything we need to do our jobs,” he said. “They’re just not letting us do it.”

The policy before DeJoy took office, another carrier said, was that “everything had to be gone.” “You could not bring back mail,” they said. “That’s a no-no, for at least 50 years. You’d get fired. But now bringing mail back is policy. It doesn’t make sense.”

The same carrier said that he knew a business owner who’d gotten three months worth of bills delivered the same day. Other people’s checks had gone missing. It’s been particularly tough on veterans and seniors. “That’s not a rumour. I have a guy on my route waiting for prescriptions from the VA, [and] another on my route waiting for a VA check and his rent was due,” he said. “He had to call city hall and explain himself, and luckily they were nice, but other places, you know, they’re not. They’re gonna say, ‘Screw you.’”

Another carrier in Las Vegas said that he hadn’t experienced the same issues reported by other carriers across the country, and he believed it was tied to who lives on his particular route. “Honestly, I’m in an affluent area, one of the two or three nicer parts of Vegas.” Things are probably worse, he said, “in the most diverse parts of town.”

Post offices are handling the delays in different ways. One carrier on the East Coast said that he was instructed to prioritise Amazon packages first. (USPS still makes roughly a third of all Amazon deliveries.) This means that other packages, including some containing medicines, would wind up back at the post office at the end of the day. Like other carriers, he said that, before DeJoy took over, this used to be a “fireable offence.”

Another carrier said that letter mail wasn’t being prioritised because customers aren’t able to track it. “Anything you bring back is supposed to be written up and signed off by a supervisor, but there’s no scans on the mail. There’s scans on packages. So they just have you bring back the mail and there’s no accountability for it. There’s no proof that it was brought back. They can hide it.”

“They don’t even care about the mail anymore,” the same carrier said. “Again, that’s stuff that would get you fired before. Now with this, it’s like, ‘If you get to it,’ you know? I’m like, ‘Really?’”

Asked about absentee ballots, most workers said they were confident in their ability to get them delivered — provided they show up on time. In some cities, workers have been instructed to give ballots preferential treatment. Others said they had not yet received those orders. “It’s always been relatively easy. But they’re making it difficult now,” said one carrier, referring to the delivery of ballots. The ballots come sporadically, sometimes in big waves. “Sometimes they’re all out of order. But it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

Nearly every source said that it was the restrictions on mail handlers, clerks, and truck drivers that were the primary cause of delays. “They need to easy-up on them,” a carrier from California said. “They’re telling these clerks they have to go home even though there’s packages piling up everywhere around them. Stuff is postmarked for Monday, and it’s not actually going out for two or three days. That’s how you end up with dead animals and rotten food and people’s checks going missing the day they actually need it.”

“I’m not sure what else to say,” said one mail clerk who said the changes have left him hunting for another job. “The new postmaster general, and the president, they’re destroying something great here, and it’s hurting a lot of people.”