ELLSWORTH, Kan. (AP) - The card from California arrived at the Ellsworth Post Office, addressed only to “Grandma and Grandpa, Rural Route, Ellsworth, Kansas.”
In rural Kansas, mail clerks are expected to have encyclopedic knowledge of who lives where and is related to whom. Someone at the post office quickly remembered an older couple with family in California lived on the rural route and the card was successfully delivered to its intended recipients.
“I mean, it’s just what you do,” said Peggy Hand, a retired U.S. Postal Service clerk, recalling the 20-year-old episode.
Hand, 67, retired in May after a 30-year career at the Ellsworth Post Office, a plain brick building along a red brick street in this central Kansas town about 115 miles (185.07 kilometers) northwest of Wichita. She fears the intimate connection rural communities enjoy with the Postal Service could be endangered as the agency faces its gravest challenge in years.
The coronavirus pandemic placed severe financial strain on the Postal Service, a constitutionally-mandated government service. It’s the latest challenge for an agency that has made round after round of service reductions and closed offices as people turn toward the internet and away from traditional mail, The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star reports.
Despite bipartisan support for billions in aid, Congress remains gridlocked on a larger coronavirus relief package that would also help the Postal Service.
At the same time, new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, an ally of President Donald Trump, ordered hundreds of machines capable of sorting high volumes of mail removed from processing centers across the country. The agency said the removals reflected a decline in mail volume.
The agency also removed iconic blue mailboxes in some areas and implemented other restrictions on delivery and overtime work in the name of improving efficiency. But people across the country report the mail isn’t arriving as quickly and Democrats and others worry the changes could threaten the agency’s ability to handle an anticipated record level of mail-in ballots this fall.
In rural Kansas, residents are watching the developments with low-grade anxiety. The Postal Service is a vital lifeline to those who live away from city lights, providing a dependable flow of medicines, newspapers, magazines and all manner of correspondence. The mail is as an essential link to the larger world, especially for seniors and for those without broadband internet.
But the Postal Service isn’t what it once was in rural communities. Over the years, delivery has slowed. Outgoing mail is collected earlier in the day. Letters that only need to travel a few blocks are shipped to distribution centers in large cities for sorting before being sent back.
Residents fear the latest changes and the long-term problems facing the the Postal Service could further diminish a treasured agency. They are pondering what a lesser, slower Postal Service would mean for themselves, their communities and their country.
“The portal I have is that mailbox out on the road … Those mailboxes are pretty darn sacred,” said Tom Giessel, who farms corn and wheat near Larned, and is an honorary historian in the National Farmers Union. His own mailbox, a beat-up metal beast, is decades old.
Hundreds of miles away in Sheldon, Mo., people know what it’s like to live without a post office. The southwest Missouri community lacked one for much of last year because of needed repairs in the facility.
Over that time, some worried that their small outpost would never reopen. It did, and people there say they have a renewed appreciation for the role it plays in their lives.
“We need to fund the postal service and fight off this attempt to shut them down,” said Robert Moran, a Sheldon alderman. “The postal service goes into every part of the United States that private carriers like UPS and FedEx just don’t go.”
In rural communities like Sheldon, people are used to going out of town a few times a month for groceries or banking. Medical appointments require a drive, but Moran said the community just can’t go without the local postal office.
“It’s an everyday need people have here,” he said.
On Friday, DeJoy told Congress that the Postal Service remains committed to serving rural America.
But the changes, coming just months before a November presidential election, provoked a national outcry and fears that Trump is trying to sabotage the vote. The president has acknowledged that mail-in voting will be harmed without aid for the Postal Service.
DeJoy announced early last week that he was pausing the operational changes until after the election, but he said Friday he has given no plans to reverse what’s already happened or reinstall sorting machines. The U.S. House passed legislation Saturday that would require the Postal Service to reverse changes it has already made while also providing $25 billion in emergency aid to the agency, which is normally funded by postage sales rather than taxes.
“For them to be taking out more machines, just in the last couple weeks, it’s just crazy, particularly with the election,” Hand said as she drank her morning coffee on Wednesday, occasionally pulling down her KN95 mask to take a sip. “I mean that does nothing but delay, delay, delay.”
A LIFELINE FOR SENIORS
Rural communities tend to be older and less mobile than urban ones, making residents more dependent on the mail for delivery of medications and other supplies. It’s a “lifeline for older Americans,” said Craig Eichelman, state director of AARP Missouri.
It’s also a major economic and social force. In Kansas alone, the postal service employs more than 6,000 people. John Leatherman, a professor and expert on local economics at Kansas State University, called the post office an “anchor institution” for rural areas that provides the chance to meet with acquaintances and renew social ties.
Major changes to the postal service would likely hit rural residents harder than urban residents. Because many residents rely on mail to pay utility bills or mortgages, delays could cost them in extra fees.
“It will cause a certain degree of social disruption and it will hurt people in rural communities,” Leatherman said.
When the post office in Sheldon, Missouri, was closed for several months last year, people had to drive to nearby Nevada or Lamar to buy stamps, check their P.O. boxes or send a package.
“They were pretty upset,” said Becky Morgan, the 20-year city clerk. “We couldn’t even mail a letter from Sheldon because they took our blue box.”
The post office eventually reopened but it’s open fewer than seven hours during the week and just two hours on Saturday.
After decades of population loss, rural communities are well accustomed to change, including at the Post Office.
The population of more than half of Kansas’s 105 counties peaked before the Dust Bowl, according to the University of Kansas Institute for Policy and Social Research. In recent years, many small towns have lost schools, hospitals and businesses as demographics transform the rural landscape.
The ambitions of the Postal Service in rural areas have also shrunken. Post Office hours have been cut and collection times have been both reduced and pushed back.
Mark Kennedy, who works as a trust officer at Citizens State Bank & Trust Company in Ellsworth, said the bank “definitely noticed in terms of mailing various correspondence to clients in Kansas City.”
Kennedy, who is also the mayor of the roughly 3,000 person town, said there’s “no rhyme or reason” to the difference over the past several months. Some letters take only a couple days, but others take three or four. He said he has no idea why.
Jim Warta, who lives in Ellsworth County, said the Postal Service in his area has been great. But he added that a month ago he sent his granddaughter in South Carolina a check in the mail and noticed she never cashed it. It turned out she never received it.
“It’s not good in other places, I guess,” Warta said.
Others say they’ve noticed a longer-term slowdown.
Giessel, who’s lived near Larned his whole life, said as a kid he could set his watch to when the mailman would arrive. The 67-year-old said the routes have been switched and you no longer know in what vehicle the mail will be coming down his dusty gravel road.
“The timing is bad,” Giessel said.
As he waited for lunch at the Ellsworth Senior Center on Wednesday, Keith Bailey said he used to take cattle to market on Thursday “and I’d have my check the next morning.” Now it takes several more days, he said.
In Ellsworth, the mail truck used to depart at 4:45 p.m., but several years ago the Postal Service moved the time up to 12:45 p.m., according to Hand, the retired postal clerk. The change meant the Post Office kept much of the mail dropped off in the afternoon until the following day.
“That was a big deal for people because they were used to getting it mailed and mailed out that day,” Hand said. “There were a lot of complaints on that.”
RESIDENTS WORRY AS POLITICIANS FIGHT
The debate over the Postal Services’ future - and fear that the agency will be diminished - promises to play a dominant role in the election.
Kansas Democrat Barbara Bollier, a state legislator running for U.S. Senate, said she has been hearing about the issue regularly from constituents and said that her own post office was among the facilities to lose equipment.
“In my own local Shawnee Mission Post Office, four sorting machines have been removed. That is a fact,” Bollier said. “And I know there’s been delays in deliveries because a veteran called me and said that he had to wait more than five days for his medication and we cannot have that.”
A Postal Service spokesman did not respond to an email about Bollier’s claim regarding the Shawnee Mission machines.
Bollier said like other Kansans she depends on the Postal Service to pay her bills and receive information.
Bollier’s opponent, Republican Rep. Roger Marshall, has downplayed the controversy.
During a virtual Kansas Republican Party event on Monday, Marshall said he would stand beside Trump during “the little spat about the U.S. Post Office.”
The western Kansas congressman acted as though nothing had changed the following day when DeJoy announced his decision to suspend operational changes, such as restricting overtime and removing additional processing equipment, until after the election and suggested the Democrats had manufactured the backlash.
“I’m glad to see President Trump’s Administration put an end to the fearmongering by Democrats and the media by choosing to suspend what have been long-standing operational practices, for the sake of ensuring public trust in our electoral process,” Marshall said in a statement.
Marshall has repeatedly touted his past support for efforts to shore up the Postal Service, but Saturday he voted against House Democrats’ legislation that would steer $25 billion in emergency aid to the agency and require DeJoy to reverse the recent operational changes.
He said the bill was intended to achieve political objectives rather than strengthen the agency.
“This bill would double down on the failed status quo by aimlessly throwing $25 billion at a broken system and arbitrarily hamper the USPS’s ability to make badly needed operational reforms,” Marshall said in a statement.
“According to the USPS’ own audit, they are currently funded through August 2021, well after the election will be decided. Instead of playing partisan politics with more regard for winning a presidential election than helping Americans, we should be pursuing meaningful reforms that address the USPS’ underlying problems.”
Bollier said in response that she was disappointed in Marshall’s vote. “This isn’t a hypothetical issue - I’ve heard personally from Kansans about delays in receiving their medications and the removal of sorting machines,” Bollier said in a statement.
The House passed the legislation 257-150. Its prospects in the Republican-controlled Senate are uncertain.
George “Mike” Richardson has seen other funding crises come and go in his 31 years working for the postal service. President of the Missouri Rural Letter Carriers Association, he’s not too concerned with the current rhetoric in Washington. But he said politicians need to view the mail as a service, not a business.
“It’s an election year,” he said. “I really think there’s too much politics in it.”
He thinks the postmaster general wants to make needed changes to ensure the future viability of the service. But he said DeJoy doesn’t seem to fully understand the complexities of the operation.
Attempts to cut overtime, he said, might sound good on paper. But in small post offices, a few hours of overtime helps keep deliveries running on time and is cheaper than hiring more full-time staff, which are hard to find in the first place.
Ellsworth’s post office has been “extremely short handed” for years, said Hand, the retired clerk.
“For a while there, there was a hiring freeze and even though we needed people so bad, you just had to do it,” Hand said.
Most rural residents interviewed voiced support for financial aid to the Postal Service. Insufficient aid will make the privatization of the agency more likely, they contend.
Richardson worries that any attempt to privatize or profit off the post office would uniquely harm rural residents. The postal service relies on the density - and relative cheapness - of delivering in cities to offset the high cost of delivering in sparsely populated areas.
“And everybody benefits from that system,” Richardson said. “It provides a level bargain for everybody.”
Among many who live in rural areas, privatization is viewed as a kind of postal doomsday that would effectively destroy the Postal Service as they know it. Residents fear service would suffer in rural areas because of the difficulty in turning a profit in those areas.
That includes Hand, who’s now just a postal customer and no longer an employee.
“When they talk about privatization, the way I see it is they are going to want Los Angeles, Boston, New York City,” Hand said. “Who’s going to want Ellsworth?”
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