USPS, stretched to its limits in 2020, sees ‘light at the end of tunnel’ in new year

The Postal Service is wrapping up a year that in many ways has stretched the agency to its limits.

USPS handled a surge in packages and a record volume of mail-in ballots, all while dealing with tens of thousands of employees having to quarantine throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agency officials, meanwhile, continue to stress that the organization’s long-term business model is unsustainable, and has called on Congress to pass the latest major postal reform bill in more than a decade.

New challenges and opportunities lay ahead for USPS in the new year, but here’s a recap of what the USPS overcame in 2020.

‘There is light at the end of the tunnel’

The pandemic had a serious impact on employee availability throughout the year. The National Association of Letter Carriers reported earlier this month that 14,000 postal employees were under quarantine.

Over the course of the pandemic, NALC reports that about 66,000 employees — more than 10% of the total USPS workforce — have quarantined and returned to work. The union also reports 105 postal employees have died from COVID-19.

“On behalf of the NALC, we mourn the loss of our fellow brothers and sisters,” NALC President Fredric Rolando said in a recent statement. “We send our condolences and deepest sympathies to these letter carrier’s families, friends, and co-workers.”

While mail volume declined by more than 20% in the spring and has yet to recover, package volume grew substantially, to levels USPS only usually sees during its peak holiday season.

In a recent video message to employees, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said USPS expected to handle up to 30% higher package volume this holiday season than it did for the same period last year.

“We are seeing this strong volume in the network in every part of the country. Our competitors are likely to get more volume than they can handle, which means we may be getting a lot of overflow,” DeJoy said.

To keep up with demand, USPS has hired more than 50,000 temporary seasonal workers, approved a significant amount of overtime and allowed Sunday deliveries in most of its markets. However, challenges with employee availability have had an impact on employee availability.

“We continue to see high rates of absenteeism in hotspots around the country. This has an impact on local and national service performance, and it adds stress throughout the workforce,” DeJoy said. “The recent news on vaccines means there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we are not there yet.”

Postal employees are expected to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the next wave of distribution.

The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends including USPS employees and other “frontline essential workers” into the next wave of vaccine distribution, along with people over the age of 75.

The current wave of vaccine distribution is focused on health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities. The panel’s recommendations aren’t binding, but have been sent to CDC director Robert Redfield for consideration.

USPS outlines ‘extraordinary lengths’ for mail-in ballots

USPS played a critical role in delivering mail-in ballots during this year’s primary and general elections — a function that it will continue to serve in Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections next week.

Americans cast a record 159 million ballots in the 2020 general election, and USPS delivered at least 135 million ballots to or from voters. The agency delivered more than 99% of ballots within seven days.

Overall USPS delivered about 543 million pieces of election mail — including ballots, ballot applications, registration forms and more — a 96% increase over the amount of election mail delivered in 2016.

“The Postal Service went to extraordinary lengths to achieve these results,” the agency wrote in its 2020 post-election analysis report. “The scale of planning and the organizational effort throughout the 2020 election cycle was immense, reflecting the hard work and commitment of postal employees at every level of our operations and in every community we serve.”

The percentage of voters casting their ballots in-person on Election Day has steadily decreased over the past decade. Meanwhile, the number of mail-in voters nearly doubled from 2004 to 2016.

DeJoy and Lee Moak, a member of the USPS Board of Governors and chairman of its election mail committee, said USPS remains “laser-focused” on delivering mail-in ballots on-time in Georgia’s two Senate run-off elections.

“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated our serious financial and operational challenges — and despite substantial political rhetoric and sensationalism — the postal workforce remained focused on delivering the nation’s election mail,” they wrote.

USPS officials, however, raised concerns over a dozen federal lawsuits and resulting injunctions that required the agency to turn over daily and weekly on-time mail delivery metrics and make officials available for depositions and other demands.

“The Postal Service complied with these orders, but they were undoubtedly a distraction for the organization, requiring the diversion of resources and keeping critical postal leadership from their primary duty of ensuring that the nation’s election mail was being handled expeditiously,” the agency wrote.

USPS sees short-term finances improve

The Postal Service is wrapping up 2020 in a better financial situation. The agency reports having more than $14 billion in cash at the end of fiscal 2020 — a higher sum than it’s had in the past few years.

In the early stages of the pandemic, USPS officials warned the agency was on track to run out of cash needed to operate in fiscal 2020, but a surge in package volume has pushed the timeline back as far as October 2021.

Meanwhile, Congress has given USPS $10 billion in one-time funding as part of its latest wave of coronavirus spending. Lawmakers had previously approved a $10 billion loan from the Treasury Department under the CARES Act, but the latest spending package has eliminated the need for USPS to pay that money back.

While congressional Republicans have raised concerns over bailing out the Postal Service, especially given its increasingly robust package business, DeJoy told lawmakers he would welcome compensation for costs incurred during the pandemic — including more overtime hours and personal protective equipment for postal employees.

Vacancies remain for USPS Board of Governors

President Donald Trump earlier this month nominated former Syracuse Mayor Roy Bernardi to serve on the USPS board of governors. However, Congress hasn’t moved his nomination forward.

Bernardi, also the former deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the George W Bush administration, would have solidified Republican leadership on the board before President-elect Joe Biden would take office.

The board currently has four Republican members, two Democrat members and three vacancies.

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