Inside Wenatchee’s postal confusion as USPS disabled local sorters

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WENATCHEE — For one day this week, your Wenatchee Valley mail spent the night in Spokane. Now it’s back in local hands.

Amid vast stop-and-go changes to the U.S. Postal Service under new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the Wenatchee mail processing center was ordered first to take apart its key mail-sorting machinery, then to repair it. It was to be the first step in sending all Wenatchee-area mail to Spokane for sorting and cancellation, but the order was soon rescinded.

“It was weird,” says Wenatchee USPS electronic technician Ryan Harris, who’s president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 751. “They had us disconnect it, and then two days later, put it back together. So luckily, we didn’t disassemble it and send it to Spokane like they wanted us to.”

In response, Harris says, the 43 USPS employees in his union plan to hold an informational picket Saturday at the Maple Street post office in Wenatchee. Mail customers will see postal workers carrying signs and distributing literature, “just to kind of let them know that we’re still here supporting the community, and that we want to be here servicing them as long as we can.”

It’s not the first time mail service in Wenatchee has been targeted for consolidation. The local processing center was one of 250 marked for closure in 2012, but the Postal Service delayed that plan two years later.

Harris, 49, also happens to be president of APWU’s statewide organization. He’s worked for USPS in the Wenatchee Valley since 1996, maintaining the sorting equipment that routes mail to your door. “The machine that they disconnected is one of my babies,” he says.

NCWLIFE: Tell me what kind of directives the Wenatchee post office has received.

Ryan Harris: It originally started in July. We were told that we were going to be losing our outgoing letters and outgoing flat cancellations, effective the first Saturday of this month. That didn’t happen, but the second Saturday of this month, they had us disconnect the DIOSS (DBCS Input/Output Sub System) machine, which is the machine that sprays the barcodes and sorts the letters; as well as the flats canceler and the two marks which cancel the letters. So we had to pull all the wiring from them. We didn’t actually remove the machines — all we did was remove all the wiring from the machines so they couldn’t be used.

NCWLIFE: So you have machinery sitting there now that for years has done the job of sorting mail to the proper place, and now it’s just an empty box?

Ryan Harris: No, we got the authority Tuesday night, after the Postmaster General came out and did his notice and the Washington State Attorney Genera’s Office filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service, that we were given permission to re-run the wires, hook the machines back up, and we started processing mail Wednesday night.

NCWLIFE: So that means that mail sent in or around the Wenatchee area still receives a Wenatchee postmark, and it’s handled here in Wenatchee?

Ryan Harris: Yes, we only lost productivity for one day, which was Monday. So we ran it Tuesday night after they got everything hooked up.

NCWLIFE: You didn’t have problems restarting, reconnecting the machinery after the order to disconnect it?

Ryan Harris: We did, because once we got it up and running, we got a directive from Oklahoma and D.C. telling us to not connect it back up. But then we got confirmation after that that we were one of the few facilities that were authorized in the nation to actually reinstall our machine.

NCWLIFE: That’s interesting. Do you know why Wenatchee got that authority when other post offices might not have?

Ryan Harris: The only thing I can think of is because we’ve been so proactive here, and then the Washington Attorney General’s Office was leading the nation in filing the lawsuit against the Postal Service.

NCWLIFE: Did it cost your people time or productivity? Was mail slowed down in the Wenatchee area because of the disconnection, and then reconnection?

Ryan Harris: It was, because the mail that we delivered on Wednesday, a lot of that mail was the mail that we sent to Spokane on Monday. Normally, that would be delivered on Tuesday. So it did slow a few things down. The Wednesday prior, last Wednesday, we were notified that oops, they made a mistake: Not only were they gonna be taking the letters and the flats, but they were going to be taking all of our Priority packages as well. So any Priority packages mailed in all of the 988 area was sent to Spokane for one day. But then Tuesday night, they started doing that again. They only gave us three days notice. So luckily, the Postmaster General changed his mind that quick and said hey, we can continue to process.

The big deal we’re having problems with across the nation is the veterans’ medicines — so much so that the VA has started contracting out with other carriers to deliver the medicines, because haven’t been able to deliver them in time — because a lot of the packaging machines and sorting machines haven’t been active.

NCWLIFE: If you hadn’t been allowed to reconnect and restart your systems, do you think that 24-hour delay, day-and-a-half delay would have become a permanent thing?

Ryan Harris: Yes, easily, because it would be a day there, then we’d get it back, then we’d run it on our machines for first and second pass to make it block-sequence, so the carriers could deliver it. That would take another probably two days. So they were pushing for five-day delivery — because we’re authorized for two to five days for first-class letters — so they’re trying to design the system to be the far end of that, instead of the closest end. We also not got notification today (Aug. 20) that we can no longer get the dies for the letter-canceling machines that we have, because they’re so outdated. We can’t get the 2021 dies to cancel the mail next year. So chances are, once election mail is over this year, that we’ll probably still end up losing the outgoing mail to Spokane under the guise of we don’t have a way of creating mark-cancellation dies. … We didn’t have a 2020 die this year, so we had to make one before they actually authorized them. I don’t think we got it until like February or March.

NCWLIFE: You work with local carriers and handlers. What kind of morale questions has this brought up for them?

Ryan Harris: Well, think of this — on Wednesday, you’re told starting Saturday you no longer have any work to do, and that they were going to try to find something else for you when there’s really nothing else to do, if they’re taking away all the outgoing mail. So morale is pretty low, especially when you’re told one way we’re gonna do it, now today we’re gonna do it, now are they gonna tell us next week to go ahead and pull the machine again? Because the Postmaster General came out and said they were gonna no longer going to do any consolidations, but we’re still getting reports across the nation that they’re disassembling DBCS (delivery bar code sorters) and DIOSSes. I’ve seen pictures in Michigan where they’re sitting out in the parking lot under tarps. I know that in Seattle, some of the machines they disconnected, the took parts off of them to extend the other machines to make them longer. So those can no longer be put back in service, because they’re missing two-thirds of the components.

NCWLIFE: Have your members been told here in this valley that they could be looking at job losses down the road, thanks to these changes?

Ryan Harris: No, they specifically came out and said there would be no job losses, because if there’s job losses, they have to do what’s called an AMP (area mail processing) study. So they have to actually have community input, have an actual hearing and do things like that. So by saying there’s no job losses, they don’t have to go through that process. But if you take six people away from sorting flats and parcels, and four people off the machine, and two machine operators, and there’s nothing else for them to do … A lot of our mechanics are disabled vets as well. It’s not like they’re just going to be able to pop up and move you somewhere else, and say, “Here you go, you’re gonna be a carrier now.”

The Post Office doesn’t actually get money from tax dollars. We rely on postage itself to keep running. … We’re a business, they’re saying now, instead of a service, so they’re trying to make us profitable. But we’re not allowed to be profitable. We were profitable a few years back; we were making $3 billion a year in profit. That’s when Congress came in and said we had to pre-fund our healthcare for 75 years into the future, for retirees. So we’re defaulting on $4.6 billion a year that we’re supposed to be paying for future retirement, so they’re saying that because we’re not paying that, we’re losing money. … They want us to pre-fund healthcare, pre-fund retirement for 75 years into the future, for people that haven’t even been born yet, that will work for the Post Office in the future, if there is a Post Office.

NCWLIFE: And that’s something that’s not demanded of any other agency.

Ryan Harris: Or any other private business.