About a month ago, a United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier named Mark arrived at his post office in central Pennsylvania and got some shocking news from his station manager. Mark and his coworkers were told they would have to depart the office for deliveries a few hours earlier each day, even if that meant leaving behind much of the day’s mail.
In the weeks that followed, higher-ups at the station instructed carriers to abandon hundreds of pieces of mail in order to depart a mere 10 or 20 minutes earlier. As the days went on, the excess mail started to pile up, and now Mark estimates there are thousands of undelivered letters and packages sitting in his station.
“The supervisors are cracking the whip, making sure we leave,” Mark told the Guardian. “Meanwhile carriers are walking by and saying, ‘Look at all this fucking mail we’re walking past, it’s just sitting there.’”
When Mark and his coworkers confronted the station manager he said he was only following orders from the new USPS postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. Since taking office in June, DeJoy has executed sweeping changes at the struggling US Postal Service, shaking up agency leadership and rolling out policies that have led to delays in mail delivery. These changes, which DeJoy has said are designed to cut down on labor costs, have angered advocates and Democratic politicians, who have accused him of trying to tamper with the election just weeks before millions of Americans start casting their ballots through the mail.
Now, the controversial logistics executive and Trump mega-donor arguably has more power than any other official in the country to affect the outcome of this year’s presidential election.
Donald Trump has maintained a public obsession with the USPS, which he has called “a joke”. In particular he has fulminated against the agency’s business relationship with Amazon: despite studies showing that the USPS makes a profit by shipping packages for the e-commerce giant, Trump has repeatedly insisted that the agency should charge Amazon higher rates.
USPS reported a loss of more than $2bn in the last three months and projected losses of up to $20bn over the next two years. Although the agency’s biggest albatross has been a unique mandate to pre-fund decades of retirement benefits, it has also lost revenue over a decline in first-class mail. The coronavirus has only accelerated this pattern as mail volumes dropped in the first months of the pandemic.
A USPS worker delivers mail in El Paso, Texas, during the pandemic. Photograph: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images
To stanch the bleeding, congressional Democrats have proposed giving the agency up to $25bn in aid money as part of their second coronavirus relief package, but Trump on Thursday again came out against that proposal on the grounds that it would help the USPS handle mail-in ballots, which he wrongfully believes would lead to voter fraud.
“They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo. “If they don’t get [funding], that means they can’t have universal mail-in voting.”
Without an aid package, the USPS has faced unprecedented challenges with staffing and scheduling due to the impact of the coronavirus on its already stretched thin workforce. Customers in more than a dozen states have reported delays of days or even weeks in mail delivery, including for essentials like prescription medicine. And a number of recent primary elections have been marred by postal failures: numerous voters in Wisconsin and Michigan never received absentee ballots they requested weeks in advance, while New York postal workers inadvertently disqualified thousands of ballot envelopes for not having proper postmarks.
Amid this turmoil, DeJoy’s appointment represents the culmination of a years-long attempt by the Trump administration to gain control over the USPS: earlier this year the president also filled two vacancies on the agency’s board of governors with agency outsiders, giving him complete control over the regulatory body.
DeJoy is only the fifth postmaster general in history to come from the private sector. He has never worked for the USPS, but he benefited as CEO of New Breed Logistics from a long business relationship with the agency. In the late 1980s the shipping company signed an equipment contract with the USPS and over the next 20 years the agency became one of the company’s biggest customers alongside private companies such as Sony and Estee Lauder. A North Carolina newspaper later referred to the USPS contract as the New Breed’s “big break”.
But DeJoy’s tenure at New Breed was marked by controversy: the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the company’s interactions with its workers were “motivated by anti-union animus”, and the company paid out more than $1.7m in fines for labor law violations between 2001 and 2015, according to the Intercept. In early 2000, DeJoy’s younger brother, Dominick, sued Louis and a third brother, Michael, accusing them of defrauding him out of a one-third stake in the company, according to a news article at the time.
As he grew his logistics empire, DeJoy also made a name for himself as a prolific Republican fundraiser, hosting lavish dinners out of his home in Greensboro, a $5m mansion compound. Former president George W Bush held a $1,000-a-plate event at the home in 2006 ahead of that year’s midterm elections, while former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin held another closed-door event at the home two years later.
DeJoy, meanwhile, is not the only member of his family to enter politics: his wife, Aldona Wos, served as ambassador to Estonia under Bush and later headed the North Carolina department of health and human services, where she faced criticism for hiring a number of Republican campaign aides and former New Breed employees. In 2014, the USDA discovered a pattern of shoddy bookkeeping and an enormous backlog in the state’s database of food stamp recipients in her agency. This year, Trump nominated Wos to serve as the US ambassador to Canada.
It took about 30 years, but leading New Breed eventually paid off. In 2014, he sold the company to logistics conglomerate XPO for a reported $615m, and became CEO of XPO. When DeJoy retired in 2015, he told local newspapers he was spending some time at his beach house, eating meals with his two children, and “actually reading” his Wall Street Journal. He also launched a holding company, LDJ Strategies, that he planned to use to deploy his money in real estate and private equity investments.
According to financial disclosures obtained by CNN, DeJoy still maintains a large stake in XPO Logistics, and owns large amounts of Amazon stock, creating two glaring conflicts of interest for a man leading a government agency that competes with both companies in some areas. Outside ethics experts called the disclosures “shocking”.
But DeJoy’s principal activity during his short retirement turned out to be kicking up fundraising efforts for the GOP, especially Donald Trump. Beginning around 2016, DeJoy donated more than $1.2m to pro-Trump Pacss, making him one of the president’s largest single donors. He hosted a $15,000-a-seat fundraiser for Trump at his home in late 2017, noting in the invitation that while “the president and his team have had some missteps … it is hard to deny the extreme and unreasonable challenges he faces from the political establishment”.
Last year the Republican National Committee (RNC) chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, named DeJoy chairman of fundraising for the Republican national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he hosted Mike Pence to kick off his money-raising efforts. In an interview ahead of the event, DeJoy said he planned to raise around $70 million using a strategy of “nationwide begging”.
The RNC last month decided to scale down the Charlotte convention due to concerns about the coronavirus, but DeJoy’s ample fundraising for the event paid off, nonetheless, in the form of his appointment to the position of postmaster general.
In his short tenure at USPS, DeJoy has already orchestrated risky changes to the agency. In interviews with the Guardian, postal workers said DeJoy’s new policies have introduced further confusion to an agency already hampered by the coronavirus pandemic. They worried the inconsistent and sporadic changes could cause serious harm to people and businesses and prevent the agency from ensuring every ballot is counted in the upcoming election.
Sasha, a mail carrier in Massachusetts, said USPS leadership has slashed hours for the clerks who sort the mail. This has resulted in a backlog of multiple days for residual mail including heavier packages from Amazon and other delivery services, a delay that has already affected a small-business owner along his route.
Demonstrators protest against Louis DeJoy outside his home in Washington DC, on 15 August. Photograph: Michael A McCoy/Getty Images
“This kind of delay of service is voter suppression, plain and simple,” Sasha said. “Not a single person in my station of around 50 employees believes this is anything other than active sabotage, and that includes supporters of the president.”
Another carrier in rural North Carolina said his station has started to receive each day’s mail from the sorting plant a few hours earlier than usual. According to the carrier, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, this change almost certainly means that some letters and packages are being left at the plant each day, cutting off some of his most remote customers from supplies or medicine.
These issues mirror backlogs that are accumulating around the country: even small post offices are reporting backlogs of up to 10,000 mailpieces, while some postal union officials have also reported that senior leadership are taking away their mail sorting equipment.
DeJoy has also enrolled about 400 post offices in a pilot program that prohibits postal clerks from hand-sorting the morning’s mail before letter carriers leave the station to deliver it. Any letters that were not automatically sorted by the station’s machinery are simply left at the station and delivered on some future day, if the carriers get around to it. The union that represents letter carriers has filed a national-level grievance against the program, saying the program unduly restricts carriers’ ability to get the mail out.
In response to a request for comment, a USPS spokesperson referred the Guardian to a set of remarks DeJoy released last week in which he said he was “vigorously focusing on the ingrained inefficiencies in our operations” and promised to “aggressively monitor and quickly address service issues”.
But for employees like Mark, the postal carrier in Pennsylvania, whose station is taking part in the pilot program, the changes have only led to the massive mail buildup and weeks-long delays. He said he now doubts that the USPS can ensure accuracy in the upcoming election, especially in his home state, which Trump carried by about 40,000 votes in the 2016 election.
“If you asked me a month ago can the postal service handle an influx of mail-in ballots, I would have said, ‘We’ve been through two world wars and a depression, we’ve been doing this for more than 200 years,’” he said.
“Now, I’m not so sure.”