‘How many ways can they try and ruin a small business?’
Jackie Gennett says the coronavirus pandemic didn’t kill her Bushel & Peck’s specialty food business, but the Trump administration’s throttling of the U.S. Postal Service just might.
As her Beloit restaurant all but shut down during the pandemic, her specialty food mail-order business ramped up and she began shipping chive vinegar and dilly beans all over the country. She bought special boxes to be compliant with the USPS, her most affordable option for shipping.
“Our online sales grew by 250 percent, a massive number in such a short time,’’ she said.
But about three weeks ago, her customers began inquiring about delayed orders. She checked tracking information and noticed “that is it has been just sitting at the post office for five days.”
The delays are results of President Donald Trump and his administration’s attacks on the Postal Service. Trump openly admitted last week to denying needed funds to the USPS to cripple its ability to handle an expected surge in mail-in ballots in November as Americans choose to vote absentee at record rates due to the pandemic. The president opposes mass mail-in voting, even though he and other top administration officials vote using that method, apparently because he fears a potential flood of Democratic absentee ballots will be cast in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, an ardent Trump supporter who holds between a $30 million and $75 million stake in a private shipping company, had been overseeing a nationwide removal of mail sorting machines — with no explanation to local post offices — just months before the election.
On Tuesday afternoon, DeJoy suddenly altered course and said he would suspend — though not reverse — any operational changes until after Election Day. The announcement came on the same day that Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced he is joining other attorneys general in filing a federal lawsuit challenging those operational changes.
Sen. Ron Johnson also announced he would hold a hearing Friday of his Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee, but a Washington Post report indicates he is more likely to be sympathetic to Trump administration cost-cutting at the USPS.
At Milwaukee’s mail-sorting facility—which processes a huge portion of the state’s mail—four machines have already been removed and another three are pegged for removal, according to Chris Czubakowski, legislative director for the American Postal Workers Union of Wisconsin and vice president of the union’s Milwaukee chapter. After the next three are removed, the facility will have 29 machines, he said.
Those machines can each sort up to 30,000 pieces of mail per hour, Czubakowski said.
“It’s no coincidence that the directives came down and you’re hearing reports from all over the country that people’s mail is being delayed,” Czubakowski said.
Czubakowski said he fears those machine reductions could “continue unabated,” but added that there is not currently a slowdown at the Milwaukee facility, which primarily handles mail items like letters or ballots. Instead, he said, staffing and overtime cuts have created a logjam at the package sorting facility in Oak Creek, a southern Milwaukee suburb.
“It’s frustrating, and my concern is what is going to happen over the holidays when our volume increases?’’ Gennett said. “Being able to ship packages through the post office is saving our business, which isn’t being helped by anything else in our government right now. It’s just ridiculous. How many ways can they try to ruin a small business?”
Wisconsin business owners told UpNorthNews postal service delays are hindering their operations, many of which already are hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. In Eau Claire, Jamie Kyser said the Tangled Up In Hue store she owns with Erin Klaus is “experiencing serious disruption to our business” because of USPS cutbacks.
“We ship many packages daily, and now we also deal with serious delays and time spent dealing with customer service related to these delays, as well as extra costs to replace items,” Kyser said. “This is horrible for small businesses already struggling to make ends meet.”
Other business owners ranging from those selling books, to those who sell items via eBay, to freelancers who are paid by paper checks sent through the mail said they wonder how they will remain in business without a reliable mail system.
Eau Claire resident Anna Schmidt said simply paying her monthly rent would prove difficult without the postal service.
“My landlord doesn’t accept cash or checks, only money orders,” she said.
Kriss Marion, a Democratic candidate for the 51st Assembly District seat, says she hears complaints about slow postal service everywhere she goes.
“The anxiety around the post office has been palpable for months and in the last few weeks it’s really ramped up,” she says. “The pandemic and the recession have been bad enough, but now people feel like they can’t rely on the post office. It’s heartbreaking to see the dismantling of a beloved, century-old institution.”
Marion joined a group of about 25 people that gathered on Monroe’s courthouse square last weekend to protest in support of the postal service.
Donna Phillips, of Monroe, carried a sign that read, “We need our medication sent by mail.” Her late husband, Robert, was a veteran served by the Veterans Administration health system and received his V.A. prescriptions by mail.
The delayed sending of medications is another serious ramification of postal service cutbacks, Marion said.
“I’m worried about the elderly who get their prescriptions through the mail,’’ Marion said. “We don’t have a pharmacy in Blanchardville. The nearest one is a half an hour away. Older people are at risk (from COVID-19) and they don’t want to have to go out to go shopping for their medicines. The post office is very important for our rural population, which tends to be elderly.”
Ben Wilson is among Wisconsin residents who could soon face delays receiving medications vital to his health with reduced postal service. Wilson, a 41-year-old Viroqua resident, takes medications for HIV each night, and without them his immune system is compromised, which could lead to serious health concerns.
Wilson recently received notice from his pharmacy that the sending of his medicines may be delayed, and that he may have to pick them up in person to receive them in a timely manner.
“Missing a single dose would be a problem for me,” Wilson said.
His health insurance plan does not allow him to have those prescriptions filled locally, so Wilson must instead have his medications filled at a La Crosse pharmacy 35 miles to the north, then mailed to him. Having his medications processed that way costs Wilson $50 monthly, he said; having them filled at a local pharmacy, outside of his plan, would cost $1,500.
Wilson’s parents face a similar dilemma, he said. They live in the Hayward area and recently were notified they may need to pick up their prescriptions in Eau Claire, a drive of about two hours each way, to receive medications they need.
Other people told UpNorthNews they face similar long drives to obtain their medications if they can’t get them in the mail. Kim Butler takes a medicine, anastrozole, to prevent recurrence of breast cancer. She typically receives it one or two days after ordering it, but recently had to wait seven days, and faces a two-hour drive each way to pick up her meds in person.
“There are a lot of people in the northern part of the state who face longer drives to get their medicine than me,” said Butler, who lives in Balsam Lake and is a candidate for the 28th Assembly District.
‘Show real respect’
Saturday’s march to the Monroe Post Office was organized by Barb Woodriff, who circulated petitions asking for increased funding for the postal service. She said the group gathered 114 signatures in Monroe Saturday and next weekend plans to visit New Glarus.
The trip to New Glarus is planned because Woodriff heard about a local cheese shop, Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus, that has seen its delivery times double, causing some cheese shipments to arrive at their destination already spoiled, because of postal delays.
“Obviously, the worst-case scenario that you don’t want is your product getting there and it’s rotten,” said Mark Ryan, Maple Leaf co-owner.
Maple Leaf’s online orders experienced a sharp uptick when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ryan said, and shipping delays soon came around the start of summer. Deliveries that typically took two to three days are now taking seven to 10, he said, and a few batches have gone bad sitting for days in a postal facility.
“We’re just concerned about reputation as far as shipping and things like that,” Ryan said.
Woodriff and Phillips said they also wanted to show support for postal workers. Phillips said they heard that postal workers have been told to leave when their shift is over, even if the mail is piling up.
“They’ve been working through the pandemic and it’s time to show real respect and appreciation for them,’’ Woodriff said. “The USPS needs funding to serve all Americans equally. We must be able to vote by mail during the pandemic. This is a non-partisan issue.”
Time needed for ballots
Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said that mail-in balloting seemed to work well during the Aug. 11 primary election, but that people need to give their local post office more time than they did in the past.
“In the good old days, you could drop a letter or ballot in a mailbox and it would be at city hall in a day or two,’’ Magney said. “Now, almost anything you mail is going to go to Milwaukee first, to a big sorting facility. The U.S. Postal Service has told us they need a week to get a letter from point A to point B in Wisconsin.”
Magney said people should request their absentee ballots for November now, by going to myvote.wi.gov or by contacting their local clerk in writing. Clerks will begin mailing ballots Sept. 17, and voters should fill them out and mail them back promptly, he said. Anyone who requests a ballot but doesn’t receive it by the end of September should call their local clerk, Magney said.
“Going into November, time is our friend,’’ Magney said. “People shouldn’t let those ballots sit around on their kitchen tables.”
Magney said that some municipalities allow voters to drop off ballots at the polling stations on election day and others don’t, so it is best to check with clerks or mail the ballots as soon as possible after receiving them.
“I understand that people are concerned about the post office, but as long as you give them enough time, everything should be all right,’’ Magney said.
Czubakowski, the postal worker union representative, said the USPS should be able to handle an influx of ballots, provided mail-sorting machines are not continually taken out of commission.
“We’ve got a track record of doing more mail than any election would require in the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we’ll get the job done,” said Czubakowski, a 24-year veteran postal worker. “We’ve just got to be given a chance.”
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The current attacks on the post office, Czubakowski said, seem to be part of the long-running push from private shipping firms and conservatives to privatize the Postal Service.
“They’ve already accomplished, I believe, what they’ve set out to do,” Czubakowski said. “And that’s to undermine people’s confidence.”
But businesses that rely on the post office are running out of patience with the Trump Administration.
“Robbing the people of the post office is so divisive and it doesn’t even make sense,’’ said Bushel & Peck’s Gennett. “Republicans like the post office, too. They don’t hate the post office. Just the Trump administration does.”
UpNorthNews reporters Jonathon Sadowski and Julian Emerson contributed to this report.
This article has been updated to correct the second reference to Chris Czubakowski’s title.