The US postmaster appointed under Trump is still raising alarm – but can he be stopped?

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Joe Biden this month took another step toward the removal of the controversial postmaster general Louis DeJoy, even as the Trump-era appointee continues to make his mark on the embattled postal service, rolling out new plans to slow down delivery and close postal stations around the country.

DeJoy, a Republican logistics executive, caused a national furor last year over his attempts to slow down mail delivery before the 2020 presidential election, in which millions of Americans voted by mail.

Biden has not said outright whether he wishes to oust DeJoy, although his press secretary, Jen Psaki, has said she is “deeply troubled” by his leadership. Even so, the president lacks the authority to dismiss the postmaster general. That power rests with the USPS Board of Governors, a nine-member panel that can remove DeJoy with a majority vote. There were three vacancies on the board when Biden took office, and he filled those vacancies with Democratic allies earlier this year.

Related: Trump-appointed postmaster general investigated over political fundraising

Now the president has taken a further step toward reshaping the board by nominating two new governors to replace those whose terms are expiring. His decision not to renominate the Democratic board chairman, Ron Bloom, is significant, since Bloom was one of DeJoy’s biggest allies on the board and earlier this year said he considered DeJoy “the proper man for the job”.

Indeed, the postmaster general bought as much as $305,000 in bonds from Bloom’s asset management firm earlier this year, according to DeJoy’s financial disclosure paperwork. Bloom has said he doesn’t benefit from the purchase. The asset purchases and Bloom’s continued support for DeJoy led some Democratic senators to say they wouldn’t support Bloom’s renomination.

Even as Biden appears to inch closer to ousting DeJoy, the embattled postmaster general has begun to leave his mark on the agency. DeJoy abandoned his initial attempts to slow down mail delivery ahead of the 2020 election after he faced lawsuits and backlash, but soon after he announced a significant reduction in the agency’s 60,000-member administrative workforce.

Jen Psaki in press briefing
Jen Psaki has said she is ‘deeply troubled’ by DeJoy’s leadership. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

DeJoy also released in April a 10-year plan for revamping postal operations. Some provisions are supported by unions and postal advocates, such as a $40bn investment in the agency’s vehicle fleet and logistics network, and modernizing thousands of retail post offices. The plan also calls for an end to a mandate that requires the USPS to fund retiree health benefits decades in advance, which postal management has decried for years as an unnecessary burden on its finances.

DeJoy’s plan would attempt to fill the postal service’s $160bn funding hole through a wide variety of cost-cutting measures.

The most significant change in the plan is the slowdown of first-class mail delivery, which took effect on 1 October. Under the new rules, long-distance mail can take up to five days to reach its destination before it’s considered late, up from the previous maximum of three days. DeJoy says these changes will improve the agency’s on-time performance and reduce what he says is an expensive reliance on air freight. The changes affect almost 40% of first-class mailpieces.

The postal service has achieved only modest performance improvements since rolling out the new standards in October. According to the agency’s most recent statistics, 91% of first-class mail deliveries have arrived on time since the launch of the new standards, up 2.5% from the previous quarter.

Nevertheless, it isn’t clear how much of the agency’s recent improvement is the result of DeJoy loosening the agency’s on-time standards.

“Great plan, loosen the standards so you can more easily reach the goal,” said Bob Dolan, a retired carrier from New Hampshire who spent more than 40 years with the agency. “I bet I could be a 90% free-throw shooter if they moved the free-throw line to five feet.”

Current postal workers who spoke with the Guardian on the condition of anonymity said that the changes hadn’t had much effect on their day-to-day workload over the past few months.

The biggest challenge of the job at the moment, said one carrier who delivers in rural New York, was the ever-increasing package load that began with the pandemic.

overhead view of warehouse and conveyor belt
Postal service employees sort parcels for distribution in Los Angeles last month. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

“I talk to carriers all over the country and they have been delivering [a] holiday volume since the pandemic started,” said the carrier from New York, who asked to remain anonymous because postal employees are prohibited from speaking to the media. “Whole offices are down due to injuries, Covid, and the labor shortage. People do not want this job and the process to hire anyone still takes for ever.”

A postal service spokesperson told the Guardian that the USPS had taken extensive steps to bolster its delivery network ahead of the holiday rush. The agency has hired more than 40,000 seasonal employees, leased overflow space for package operations, and installed more than a hundred new package sorting machines.

“The postal service’s steady performance so far through the holiday season is proof that the significant investments and operational changes being made under [DeJoy’s 10-year plan] are working,” said David Partenheimer, a representative for the Postal Service.

The slower delivery standards don’t affect packages, which make up a greater share of postal revenue than ever and which DeJoy hopes will become the centerpiece of the USPS’s business model going forward.

The new delivery standard may have a more significant impact for small businesses that rely on the USPS. An analysis by the Washington Post found that states west of the Rocky Mountains and those at the nation’s geographical extremes would suffer the most under the new standards, with states like Nevada seeing an average increase of a full day in their mail delivery times.

The other controversial part of DeJoy’s plan is a proposal to close or reduce hours at dozens of low-traffic post offices around the country. This plan revives a previous “consolidation” proposal drafted under the Obama-era postmaster general Patrick Donahoe, who served from 2010 to 2015. The USPS paused that plan after a wave of backlash from unions and advocates. Multiple rural postal workers told the Guardian that reviving the plan could have wide-ranging impacts for customers in rural areas, many of whom rely on the USPS for deliveries of medicine and other essential goods.

“Consolidating stations adds quite a time and distance burden on [rural] customers,” said Tim Apley, a retired carrier who delivered for about 25 years in rural Spokane, Washington. Customers in rural areas would have to drive much farther if they needed to buy postal supplies or pick up packages that couldn’t be delivered, he said. “Meanwhile,” he added, “a lot of the savings from a consolidation are offset by the delivery routes driving much further each day.”

Even if the board of governors does replace DeJoy, it will be hard for the new postmaster general to fix the agency alone. Postal leadership lacks the unilateral authority to increase its prices or raise money with new initiatives like postal banking, meaning that whoever is in charge, Congress will need to step in to help the agency regain its financial footing.