Anne Gustafson made two trips to her car and back Monday while visiting the United States Postal Service's main office in Duluth.
Gustafson works for a local church and, to help keep the congregation connected, it's making heavy use of the post office at 2800 W. Michigan St. in the Lincoln Park neighborhood during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not thrilled with what she's hearing about the Postal Service, Gustafson addressed the national buzz in terms of failed support and ill-timed cutbacks.
"I'm enraged," Gustafson, 51, of Duluth, said. "I feel like it's political and has nothing to do with the will of the people."
Gustafson was one of several regular customers the News Tribune talked to Monday about a Postal Service in seeming crisis.
"Who says it's a 'crisis?'" one woman, who refused to give her name, said as she exited the post office and drove away.
The U.S. Postal Service weighed in from Denver, trying to quell anxiety over mail delivery during a presidential election year.
"We’re staying out of the fight and just doing our job," Postal Service spokesman David Rupert said. "In Duluth, we're moving the mail on time. Our carriers are delivering every day, and we're working with election officials — we are in constant communication with them."
American Postal Workers Local 142 Vice President Kurt Waite disagreed, saying of the clerks he represents, "We have seen a slowing down."
Waite said it's ingrained in postal workers to process "every piece, every day," and learned by employees early on that delaying the mail was a fireable offense.
"From what we've been handed down to us, now if it's not done by a certain time, it's not going to make it, and it's going to sit," Waite said, describing how letter carriers never used to leave for their routes with mail on the dock.
Waite confirmed that Duluth-area protests are in the works. Waite said clerks are concerned about high volumes of mail-in ballots in advance of the Nov. 3 general election at a time when "hundreds of sorting machines" are removed from around the country.
The issue erupted last week and over the weekend. President Donald Trump denied the agency $25 billion in federal aid, saying he did not agree with funding increased mail-in ballots.
This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was expected to call back Congress early to address $25 billion in immediate aid to bolster the Postal Service.
In Duluth, people complained of slower out-of-state mail, and one resident said his mail now comes bundles at a time.
"I'll go two or three days without any mail, then all of a sudden one day, my post office box is full — it's coming in fits and spurts," said Jim Downs, 83, of Duluth, who added the local workers do everything they can to help him.
Mary Peterson, 74, of Duluth, said she uses the mail about four days a week.
"They need to keep it the way it is; it doesn't need to be downgraded," she said.
Scott Peterson, 68, of Duluth, said there were "underlying motives," to the federal measures.
"The postmaster general of the big organization is friends with Trump," he said, referring to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican donor and Trump appointee who agreed Monday to testify before Congress next week.
In DeJoy's first remarks to the postal body earlier this month, he denied having a political agenda and said he was committed to the U.S. Postal Service helping effectively administer election service.
"(W)hile I certainly have a good relationship with the president of the United States, the notion that I would ever make decisions concerning the Postal Service at the direction of the president, or anyone else in the administration, is wholly off-base," DeJoy said.
Jim Reijo, 70, of Duluth, arrived at the post office to buy stamps — one of the ways supporters are encouraging others to help buoy the service.
"I use the mail all the time," Reijo said. "I've got to have stamps; it was time for me to get some more."
The U.S. Postal Service moved its first-class sorting operations from Duluth to Eagan, Minnesota, in 2015. Despite the move, the Duluth processing center maintains roughly 50 employees (not including letter carriers) to do final sorting and sequencing for incoming letters. Around the same time the mail flow changed, the first-class delivery standard was reduced from one to two days for a locally mailed letter.
"It's a very good comparison," Rupert said between Duluth yielding its processing center in 2015 and what's happening within the agency now.
Rupert denied immediate slowdown or austerity measures have been put into place, and instead described a multi-year adjustment as the agency tries to maintain ample collection and processing sites for a dwindling letter volume.
Rupert admitted that machines were coming out of processing sites, describing it as making way for increased capacity of other machines, including an greater need for parcel processing equipment by the Postal Service in the age of internet shopping.
"Our network is huge, and we have the ability to take every piece of mail, even if ballots were mailed all on the same day," Rupert said. "We have the ability to handle it. We have that much capacity, and we're not going to be overwhelmed."
Union leader Waite didn't share Rupert's confidence.
"We have great concerns regarding the inability of USPS to timely process and deliver mail with some of the changes being made," Waite said. "And that includes the removal of hundreds of sorting machines, which may not allow mail to be timely processed or handle the uptick in volume due to voting."
Waite described federal aid funding as necessary for the Postal Service to recover from immediate COVID-19 expenditures such as personal protective equipment nationwide and emergency sick leave for scores of employees.
"We should not be politicized," Waite said. "We're beyond that. We serve the American people."
Gustafson, who took two full boxes of mail back to church with her, said she was disappointed mostly for postal workers, who could be seen conducting business behind tinted glass.
"They're so incredibly nice, and they provide a quality service to us all," Gustafson said. "Their hands are tied. This puts them in a really hard place."