Democrats are fighting to enact more funding and reforms for the agency, something they say takes on outsize importance given the number of Americans who will have to vote by mail in the upcoming presidential election because of Covid-19. Republicans counter that any money is meaningless without an attempt to improve the agency’s long-term sustainability, and should not be passed without a broader pandemic aid package.
USPS employed nearly 100,000 veterans at the beginning of 2020, according to agency data. In 2018, veterans made up 16 percent of the Postal Service workforce, per a Pew Research Center analysis — nearly three times their 5.8 percent representation in the workforce overall.
“We’re promoting these jobs for veterans as these stable, good jobs to make sure our disabled veterans have gainful employment because they served their country, and now we’re trying to underfund it, cut the programs, cut the way hiring processes are,” said Will Attig, executive director of AFL-CIO’s United Veterans Council. “Now, when a veteran comes home, they get hired as a temporary worker.”
“That’s kind of, in my opinion, pretty disrespectful.”
The Postal Service employed 633,108 workers as of the end of fiscal 2019, according to Pew, 30 percent below its peak in 1999. More than one in five are considered “non-career,” meaning their positions are temporary, earning lower pay with fewer benefits. In 2010, just 13 percent were non-career, according to USPS.
At the same time, overall pay has decreased: Postal Service mail carriers earned a median hourly wage of $24.67 in 2019, according to Labor Department statistics. A decade earlier, they were earning a median hourly wage of $25.10.
As the number of overall USPS employees has dropped, so too has the percentage of veterans: The Postal Service workforce was more than 31 percent vets in fiscal 1999, according to USPS’ annual report to Congress that year. Today, veterans make up about 8 percent of new hires, according to USPS.
These trends have emerged over the course of years. But the operational changes imposed — and after a barrage of criticism, temporarily paused — by DeJoy have sped the process, economists say. Since taking office in June, the former XPO Logistics executive and GOP donor has moved to limit overtime, close mail processing facilities and displace top executives, in what he says is an attempt to cut costs. Democrats and postal workers say they worry it is a well-coordinated attempt to privatize the agency.
“The idea is it will be easier to reorganize and privatize if you can try to make the whole thing nonfunctional,” said Sarah Ryan, a former USPS employee and labor professor at Evergreen State College. “It’s just a stab in the heart to make the whole thing nonfunctional.”
“It’s just intentional chaos.”
USPS officials counter that the trends, including lower salary schedules and more non-career workers, have been key in keeping costs low.
“In the 2010 round of collective bargaining, the Postal Service was able to introduce a lower salary schedule for new career hires as well as a lower-cost non-career component of the workforce, which has saved the Postal Service billions of dollars and allowed it to restrain labor cost growth relative to the private sector,” USPS spokesperson David Coleman said.
“[N]on-career employees have saved the Postal Service over $11 billion over the past decade.”
Coleman said the trends may also have served to drive veterans away: “The USPS Talent Acquisition Team believes the reason for the decline [in veteran workers] is there has been more of a focus on non-career hiring which may not be as attractive to our veteran population.”
Many veterans have been drawn to the Postal Service’s mission of public service and relatively militaristic structure. Regions are headed by postmasters; workers who don’t show up for their shifts are dubbed AWOL.
“Our soldiers want to serve, and they want stability when they come home,” Attig said. “They want to be part of something that’s not just a 9-to-5.”
Keith Combs was discharged from the U.S. Marines on May 11, 1987. On May 12, he was “knocking on the post office door, putting in an application,” Combs, now 57, said.
“I kind of felt like it wasn’t much different than the service I was already providing to the United States,” said Combs, who still works for USPS as a mail processor and heads the American Postal Workers Union’s Detroit chapter. As a USPS employee, “I would still be providing service to the United States.”
Veterans also like the Postal Service because it allows them to live almost anywhere and take time off to serve in the National Reserve.
“A lot of our veterans when they leave the military, the majority of them try to come back to their home states, their hometowns,” said Ariel De Jesus, an assistant director at American Legion. “And of course, there’s always a post office over there.”
The House passed a bill on Aug. 22 that would funnel $25 billion into the agency — $15 billion more than was enacted via the CARES Act, an earlier pandemic aid package, in the form of a loan. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill a “a totally piecemeal postal bill” based on “overblown conspiracy theories.” The White House threatened a veto.
Veterans — historically one of President Donald Trump’s most reliable voter bases — are taking note, Soltz said. They are also concerned about well-documented delays in Veterans Affairs mail-order prescriptions and veterans’ disproportionate reliance on mail-in voting.
“Those three combinations of issues — our military votes by mail, the USPS is a huge hirer of veterans, and prescriptions are delivered by mail — put the president in a position he didn’t understand,” Jon Soltz, chair of VoteVets, said.
Trump campaign officials countered that Trump is an advocate for veterans.
“President Trump is a staunch champion for America’s veterans,” said Ken Farnaso, deputy national press secretary for the campaign. “President Trump will always prioritize the health and well-being of our nation’s heroes while ensuring that their sacred vote is secure and counted.”