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Notice your mail’s been slower? You’re not alone

  • A Peterborough postal worker who wished to remain anonymous due to the United State Postal Service media policy loads his truck on Tuesday afternoon. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • A Peterborough postal worker who wished to remain anonymous due to the United State Postal Service media policy loads his truck on Tuesday afternoon. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • A Peterborough postal worker who wished to remain anonymous due to the United State Postal Service media policy loads his truck on Tuesday afternoon. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/13/2020 5:42:46 PM
Modified: 8/13/2020 5:42:36 PM

The state primary is 27 days away, and town clerks anticipate absentee ballots to play an outsized role in the election, as well as the November general election. Meanwhile, the US Postal Service is attempting to reassure voters considering mailing a ballot despite recent delays in service associated with the pandemic and the new Postmaster General’s emphasis on strict deadlines.

Former Peterborough postmaster Bill Chatfield said that although he had no complaints about local postal workers, he was concerned  about the recent slowdown in service that he believes is exacerbated by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s focus on saving money over maintaining service. Chatfield now runs the Peterborough Poetry Project, a not-for-profit that relies on timely mail for submissions and prize distribution. “It’s important that I get things on time,” he said. He said he had no specific concerns about rural offices’ ability to handle absentee ballots, but expressed disappointment in a number of systemic factors that he believes are also decreasing the Postal Service’s promptness, including tighter-than-ever staffing, an outdated fleet of vehicles underequipped for modern package loads, and a long-term  decline in local mail revenue.

Manchester Local 230’s Legislative Director Janice Kelble said mail delivery has slowed recently for a number of reasons, but emphasized that postal workers’ training includes preferentially treating election mail. Manchester Local 230 represents  postal workers in the Monadnock region.

The pandemic exacerbated longtime stressors to the Postal Service, she said. First class mail traffic took a dive in favor of packages, which cost more to handle and frequently overwhelm trucks as well as processing centers, and the thinned-out staff has had to work harder to cover for any unexpected absence. Some postal workers died from COVID-19 in other parts of the country, and the pandemic has interrupted work for many others due to their obligations to their children and vulnerable family members, Kelble said. The combination has necessitated “obscene amounts” of overtime to get the job done at priority mail processing centers, like the one in Nashua, she said.

A new problem is posed by the new Postmaster General DeJoy’s focus on reducing overtime hours by honoring hard deadlines. Recent internal memos instruct workers to leave delayed mail for the next day rather than wait for it if it will delay their route, national media outlets report. Strategic communications specialist for the Postal Service’s Northeast region Steve Doherty denied any new policy, “there's no new policy that I'm aware of,” he said on Tuesday, but acknowledged that there’s been a renewed focus on honoring previously established cutoff times and time schedules. “There have to be cutoff points,” in a 24-hour-a-day operation, he said, or one delay can affect every subsequent step in the mail delivery process.

Kelble said she’s already seen the deadline enforcement result in delays. At a sorting center in Manchester recently, the digitally sorted mail was scheduled to finish ten minutes after the hard dispatch time of 7 p.m. “Too bad, out the door, that mail stays ’til tomorrow,” Kelble said, noting that she’d also heard local carriers are being discouraged from helping to sort small amounts of almost-ready mail before starting their route.

“The mail is sacred. You get it out and people are waiting for it and we’re always being told you can’t delay the mail,” Kelble said. “Now we have a postmaster telling postal workers to do exactly that. It’s awful, and the timing is especially awful,” she said.

Despite that, Kelble urged the public to trust their local postal workers. “Know that postal workers will do every possible thing in their power to get it out. It is a safe method of voting,” she said. Kelble acknowledged the risk that discussing the delays in service might scare people into not voting. “It’s a thin line,” she said, “We just need to warn people that you need extra time.”

How much time? According to a statement from Doherty, the Postal Service strongly recommends that voters request ballots at the earliest point allowable, but no later than 15 days prior to the election to allow time for receiving, completing, and returning a ballot by mail, and to mail the ballot at least one week prior to their state’s due date. Doherty also provided a statement from the US Postal Service that said the service’s financial condition would not impact the processing and delivery of election and political mail.

“The Postal Service has ample capacity to adjust our nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected Election and Political Mail volume, including any additional volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our network is designed to handle increases in volume and deliver that mail in a timely manner. Additionally, the Postal Service has long-standing processes to align workforce to workload, including contingencies to respond to events like the COVID-19 pandemic,” it read.

The union is backing a 25 billion COVID-19 relief package for USPS from the government to cover loss of revenue and costs incurred under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Kelble said. “You can’t cut every corner and start things like reducing the service without harming the Postal Service ultimately,” she said. “We don’t want to see the Postal Service destroyed due to COVID,” she said.

In Jaffrey, Town Clerk Kelly Rollins said she’s received at least 150 absentee ballot requests and hasn’t heard that any were lost or delayed en route to the voter. She said she hopes absentee ballots receive priority treatment due to their official envelopes, since she’s heard that some vehicle registrations from her office were lost or delayed for weeks in recent months. It’s possible there will be a higher turnout than usual for the state primaries due to the expansion of absentee voting, she said. Although she initially was concerned that the pandemic would leave her with a shortage of poll workers, Rollins said a number of people have reached out to help. Jaffrey’s in-person primary and general election voting will be conducted drive through-style at the Hope Fellowship Church, where voter identification can be done with a car window between the ballot inspectors and the driver. Voters can fill out their ballots in their car or in booths that will be set up outside, she said, before delivering the ballot to the voting machine under the portico.

In Wilton, a recent letter from Moderator William Keefe noted the town would accept completed absentee ballots hand-delivered to the locked drop box outside the Town Hall front door, in addition to ballots that were mailed in. He also encouraged voters to mail ballots a week or more in advance to ensure they’re received by 5 p.m. on election day.

Chatfield hopes to encourage more people to keep in touch with friends and family by mail via a poetry contest that combines poetry with postcards. See peterboroughpoetryproject.org within the next week for details. His other website, mailacrossamerica.com offers mailing tips and easy ways to enhance use of the mail.

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