HELENA — While several pieces of U.S. Postal Service mail-sorting equipment and some mail drop-boxes have been removed from sites in Montana, overall delivery service in the state has seen minimal impacts so far, postal workers told MTN News.
“I don’t think, at this point, Montana mail is being impacted that much,” said one worker who didn’t want her name used. “But every day, we have customers coming in and saying mail they’re expecting hasn’t arrived.”
Workers said they have concerns about whether removal of equipment may affect delivery during high-volume mail times, such as Christmas or the upcoming Nov. 3 election, when more Montanans will be voting by mail, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But DeDe Rhodes, a clerk at the Helena post office and American Postal Workers Union leader, said she’s confident that ballots will be delivered promptly in Montana.
“The Post Office will definitely be diligent in making sure (voters) are served,” she said earlier this week. “We will get ballots to voters, we will get them back to the collectors that need to count them.”
At least 40 Montana counties are sending general-election ballots to all registered voters starting Oct. 9, including seven of the state’s eight most populous counties. Other counties also will be mailing out thousands of absentee ballots.
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and other members of Montana’s congressional delegation raised alarms about the Postal Service removing drop-boxes and mail-sorting equipment in the state, and whether those actions would cause delivery delays.
Tester has said he thinks that President Trump’s new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, is trying to "destroy" the Postal Service.
A U.S. Postal Service spokesman in Denver this week would not provide details on equipment or drop-box removal in Montana.
He provided MTN News only with statements that spoke generally about equipment changes nationwide, saying sorting machines have been removed this summer because of lower mail volume and that drop-boxes are removed as part of routine operations, in response to patterns in their use by the public.
Sources told MTN News that high-speed sorters, that can sort up to 30,000 pieces of mail in an hour, have been removed this summer in Great Falls and Billings, and that smaller mail sorters have been taken out in Great Falls, Billings and Missoula.
It’s unclear how many blue U.S. mail drop-boxes have been removed in Montana, although Tester’s office said it had reports that as many as 65 had been removed or slated for removal, including 30 in Billings and 18 in Missoula.
Sources told MTN News that most or all of the drop-boxes had not been removed in Missoula, and Tester’s office said the Postal Service had confirmed that it would reinstate 15 boxes that had been removed in Bozeman, Helena, Livingston, Lewistown, Manhattan, Glendive and Shelby.
Earlier this month, Postmaster General DeJoy said he would halt all equipment or drop-box changes until after the Nov. 3 election, to alleviate any concerns about effects on mail voting.
The Postal Service also noted that if 150 million Americans cast mail ballots for the Nov. 3 general election – which is more than the entire voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election – that’s only one-third of the 433,000 pieces of mail that the Postal Service processes in a single day.
“The Postal Service has more than enough capacity, including collection boxes and processing equipment, to handle all election mail this year, which is predicted to be less than 2 percent of total mail volume from mid-September to Election Day,” the Postal Service said in a statement.
Postal Service officials also said that removing blue boxes is a “decades-old protocol,” based on changes in usage. The Postal Service has removed about 1,400 blue boxes this year nationwide – compared to 1,700 last year – and said it will not be removing any until after the election.
Both Tester and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., have said they favor approval of $25 billion in federal aid to the Postal Service to help cover its costs during the pandemic, when it’s seeing an increase in volume of packages.
Yet Tester told MTN News Friday that DeJoy should step down as postmaster general.
"The bottom line is that money won’t do any good unless you have good leadership in the Postal Service," he said. "No amount of money is going to make him better at his job. I think it would be great ... if we put somebody in that position that knows the business and can run that business in a way that Americans have been accustomed to."
Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who's running for governor, voted against a Democratic-sponsored bailout bill for the Postal Service last Saturday, but supported a coronavirus aid bill in March that included a $10 billion loan for the Postal Service.
"Greg has successfully worked to stop USPS changes that would delay Montanans' mail delivery and he'll continue working to ensure Montanans get their mail on time," his office said Friday.