Maine farmers have blamed recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service after receiving thousands of dead baby chicks due to shipping delays. The state's postal workers blamed the slowdown on a bill championed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that "weakened the Postal Service" — and faces a tough re-election battle this fall.
This article first appeared in Salon.
At least 4,800 chicks shipped to Maine farmers through the USPS have arrived dead in recent weeks, the Portland Press Herald reported. "It's one more of the consequences of this disorganization, this sort of chaos they've created at the post office and nobody thought through when they were thinking of slowing down the mail," Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, told the newspaper. "This is a system that's always worked before and it's worked very well until these changes started being made."
Operational changes made by recently installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a top donor to President Trump and the Republican Party, have been blamed for a mail slowdown that has impacted shipments of medication, government aid and other vital services. DeJoy has said the cash-strapped agency implemented the changes as cost-cutting measures.
"Shortly after or right at the same time that [DeJoy] came on board … the company line was that it was a cost-saving measure," Kimberly Karol, president of the Iowa Postal Workers Union, told Salon. "But the reality is that it impacts service standards and, whether intentionally or not, this changes the time frames that our customers receive the mail."
Postal workers say the agency would not be in a financial hole if not for the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), a bill co-sponsored by Collins back in 2005. The bill required the agency to pre-fund retirement health benefits 75 years in advance, something not required of any other federal entity.
Collins said on the Senate floor in 2006 that it was "not a perfect bill" but "I am convinced it will put the U.S. Postal Service on a sound financial footing for years to come."
.@SenSusanCollins on her postal reform bill in 2006: “I am convinced it will put the US Postal Service on a sound… https://t.co/lNLVO4c5to— Jake Jordan (@Jake Jordan)1597863839.0
Instead, the agency's financial troubles have largely been the result of the mandate in the law, which passed with bipartisan support in 2006 during a lame-duck session before Democrats took over the Senate.
"That kind of put us in a hole on paper and made it look like we were losing money," Mark Seitz, president of the National Association Letter Carriers, Local 92 union, told the Maine Beacon.
The USPS has racked up more than $160 billion in debt, about $119 billion of which resulted from the mandate to prepay retiree benefits.
"That bill had a few good things in it, but it had a spoiler with this pre-funding mandate," John Curtis, a retired mail carrier, told the Beacon. Collins, he continued, "helped set the stage for the current attacks on the postal service. … She weakened the postal service to the point where people like our president can point to it and say, 'There's a crisis here.'"
President Donald Trump's Task Force on the U.S. Postal Service, which was headed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, called to keep the policy in place in 2018 so that financial burden would not be "shifted to the taxpayers," which fueled conservatives' calls to privatize the agency.
"Collins has never publicly spoken out in favor of privatization. She's very cautious about that," Curtis told the Beacon. "But if you look at her actions, they all trend in that direction."
Postal Service reform has been a key focus for Collins for nearly two decades. The Maine senator introduced a bill to create a postal reform commission in 2002 that later recommended "that the private sector become more involved in the delivery of the nation's mail."
After taking over as the chair of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which oversees the USPS, Collins held numerous hearings on the committee's recommendations, which also included a suggestion to create a "reserve account" to pay for future retiree health benefits. The hearings culminated with the introduction of the PAEA, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.
Along with requiring the USPS to pre-fund retiree benefits, the bill also barred the agency from raising rates beyond inflation rates, effectively prohibiting the agency from being able to cover the growing hole in its operational expenses. This was a boost to private competitors like FedEx and UPS, who were able to keep their rates low while contracting out the "last mile" of deliveries to the USPS, especially in remote areas where deliveries are not profitable.
Collins' work on postal reform appears to have been a financial boon for her as well. Collins has received more than $200,000 from PACs representing USPS' private competitors and contractors, and tens of thousands more from those companies' executives and employees. FedEx has been one of Collins' biggest backers and even held a birthday fundraiser for her a few years after the passage of the PAEA in 2010. Collins' annual financial reports also show that her husband owned stock in UPS and FedEx during periods between 2012 and 2014.
Collins, who is one of the most vulnerable Republicans facing re-election this year, issued a tepid statement in reaction to current concerns over the mail slowdown's apparent effects on deliveries of medication and government aid — and possibly mail-in ballots.
"If people cannot depend on the Postal Service for prompt delivery of mail or packages, it will only further hurt the Postal Service's financial situation," Collins said.
She also sent a letter to DeJoy expressing concerns over the slowdown and calling on the agency to "take steps to immediately remedy the factors that are causing delays in essential deliveries."
Collins' campaign did not respond to questions from Salon.
Collins introduced a bill in July that would provide $25 billion for the Postal Service, with a condition that would require the agency to provide a long-term financial plan to lawmakers. House Democrats approved $25 billion with no strings attached in a coronavirus relief bill in May, but Senate Republicans have so far balked at providing any additional funding to the USPS in their relief proposal.
Trump, who is trailing badly in the polls and spinning false conspiracy theories about mail ballots, has vowed to block funding for the USPS, saying he believes that without it "you can't have universal mail-in voting," although his top aides have tried to walk those comments back in recent days.
Karol told Salon that the agency's "immediate need is to get the COVID relief funding" but the longterm goal is to "stop some of these very destructive policies" by demanding that Congress rework the requirements of the PAEA.
"For many, many years … we have been trying to have Congress address that," Karol said, adding that she hopes the public distress over USPS service changes will compel lawmakers to correct "the problems that legislation created."
"Ultimately," she said, "that law is responsible for how we got to where we're at now."