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Machines at Fort Myers Postal Service distribution center discarded

By NATHAN MAYBERG / nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com - | Sep 3, 2020

PHOTO PROVIDED

At Lee County’s central processing and distribution center for the U.S. Postal Service in Fort Myers, something happened that has played out all across the country. Five working feeders for machines used to sort the mail by ZIP code were discarded and trashed into a dumpster.

The removal of sorting machines at postal distribution centers across the nation led to hearings in front of Congress recently involving Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. While DeJoy said he did not give the order to remove the machines and said no further removals would take place, he said the machines would not be replaced.

Sam Wood, president of the American Postal Workers Southwest Florida Area Local 1279 union in Fort Myers, confirmed the removal of sorting machines at the Fort Myers distribution center, to which the union objects. The U.S. Postal Service distribution center at the intersection of Daniels Parkway and Interstate 75 organizes mail for delivery for the region, including the islands and Lee County, Charlotte County and south to Naples and Marco Island in Collier County.

“We don’t want to have our customers waiting on packages, prescription drugs, things they really depend on. As postal workers, we swear an oath to office that we are going to protect the mail and serve the community,” Wood said. “By not saying something to the public would be a disservice.”

According to delayed mail reports cited by Wood, there were 186,106 items of delayed mail at the Fort Myers distribution center in April; 464,236 items delayed in May; 734,315 items delayed in June; and more than 5.7 million items of delayed mail in July.

“I have never seen this before,” he said.

Wood, who has been president of the union for the past 20 years, said the uptick began after five sorting machines were removed. Wood said he does not know from where the directive came.

David Partenheimer, manager of public relations for the U.S. Postal Service, said the removal of mail sorting machines was ordered before DeJoy was appointed to his current position.

“Like any company with a vast processing network like ours, adjustments are made as needed based on changing need,” Partenheimer said in a statement. “Our letter mail volume has been declining for more than a decade as customers chose other forms of communications, including electronic bill payment, e-mail and so on.”

Wood said the U.S. Postal Service “is not a business. We’re not the stock market. It’s the public’s postal service.”

Wood said maintenance department management said they were following directives to remove the machines due to a slowdown in mail during the coronavirus pandemic. He was shown a memo which also states that the machines should not be replaced. Wood said the agency failed to take into account an increase in mail activity once the economy opens up.

He is particularly concerned about the November elections, when a high volume of mail-in ballots and absentee ballots in Florida are expected.

“We’re going to have problems,” Wood said. “We deliver to Republicans, Democrats and Independents.”

Wood said the machines that were removed read the addresses and bar codes of the mail and sort them out by zip code.

“The feeders were trashed,” he said.

Wood said he does not understand why the machines were thrown away.

“There was nothing wrong with the machines,” he said. “They probably cost a lot of money.”

Wood said he is hoping it “doesn’t get worse” with the mail delays.

Partenheimer said he could not speak about “specific actions regarding specific machines.”

“The location of machines in our vast processing network is based on operational needs, including changing mail volumes and adjustments have always been made,” he said.

Partenheimer referred to DeJoy’s House committee testimony in which he cited a declining volume of mail for the removal of more than 1,000 sorting machines nationwide.

“Regarding mail sorting machines, the Postal Service has always evaluated equipment sets and other operational factors to balance available resources with changes in volumes,” DeJoy said. “While letter and flat machines have been reduced to account for the reduction in letter and flat volume, we have increased package sorting equipment to process the increases in package volume.”

DeJoy said an evaluation of letter and flat sorting equipment utilization showed that “even with the ongoing reductions in equipment, the letter sorting machines are only being used for 32 percent of the available machine hours. The flat sorting machines are only being used for 38 percent of the available machine hours. Even if letter and flat volumes increase substantially, there is more than enough capacity on the machines to handle the volume.”

DeJoy said he anticipates that “election mail will account for less than 2 percent of all mail volume from mid-September until Election Day. Nonetheless, while I did not initiate the evaluation or removal of this equipment, I have given the directive to stop the removal of additional mail processing machines through the election.”

At the hearing in front of the House Oversight Committee of Congress, DeJoy was grilled by Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch who asked him, “What the heck are you doing?”

“On the eve of a national election, at a time when the CDC is advising people not to gather, limit outside contact, the Postal Service started removing 671 high-speed mail-sorting machines across the country,” Lynch said.

“For the first time in 240 years in our history of the United States Postal Service, you sent out a letter embarrassingly in July to 46 states that said the Post Office can’t guarantee that we can deliver the mail in time for the elections in November. And we have reports from across the country, as you acknowledge, service has been delayed and the mail is piling up.

“Either through gross incompetence you have ended the 240-year history of delivering the mail reliably on time or the second conclusion that we can gather is you are doing this on purpose and that you are deliberately dismantling this one proud tradition,” Lynch said to DeJoy.

Lynch asked DeJoy if he was going to put back the high-speed machines that were removed.

“No, I will not,” DeJoy replied.

DeJoy said the machines were “not necessary.”

Asked again by Committee Chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York if he would put the machines back, DeJoy replied, “No, I will not.”