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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Casers and streeters and the case of the undelivered mail ballots in Colorado

Eight-hundred-and-twenty-eight ballots were not delivered to Aurora and Denver voters until late afternoon on Tuesday, Nov. 5, just hours before the polls closed on Election Day. How and why did that happen? 

Often, there are multiple factors leading to errors, mistakes, accidents and other failures. That may well be the case in this situation with the undelivered ballots.

But part of the blame may lie with an administrative decision from D.C. that has interfered with postal workers being able to do their job efficiently and with dignity. A new system for sorting and delivering mail has created a crisis all over the country. 

Diana Bray

The trial policy, called the Consolidated Casing Initiative, involves “Casers” and “Streeters” — those who sort the mail and the carriers who deliver the mail.  

For over 200 years, the Casers and the Streeters were one and the same. Letter carriers would typically spend the first part of the morning sorting the mail that they would then deliver. They knew their customers. They knew who was on vacation and who had moved. They felt connected to the people they delivered mail to.

The system allowed for two or three hours of sorting and five to six hours of delivering. This system made sense because letter carriers knew the houses, apartments and people on their routes. A typical workday was eight hours. 

That all changed when the executive office of the U.S. Postal Service in D.C. issued the Consolidated Casing Initiative earlier this year with no input from postal workers. The rationale for the change was that the Postal Service needed to reduce costs, streamline services and free up work space. 

Phase One of the new system started in May 2019, in Annandale, Virginia, a city that some postal workers feel was cherry-picked for likely success. The new system requires that Casers come in at 5:30 a.m. and sort mail for the Streeters, putting multiple routes into each “case.”

The Streeters are required to deliver routes they did not sort. The new routes are very large, putting letter carriers on the street all day long, starting around 9 a.m. Employees are not given a choice as to which role they are assigned. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists. 

Though the system created significant chaos in Annandale, Virginia, Phase 2 began at the Westwood Station in Denver and in other parts of the country in August, and the challenges continue.

Mail is being lost, carriers can’t keep up and undelivered mail sits in piles on the floor, with Casers not knowing why it was undelivered. 

Some carriers are walking for 13-15 hours a day, delivering mail on unfamiliar routes. Chaos and stress is now the norm as carriers are expected to walk for 7 hours and 45 minutes, with 15 minutes office time, on a “good day.” Employees say that there are “no good days.”  

On Aug. 29, 2019, the National Association of Letter Carriers sought an injunction stopping the Postal Service from continuing the Consolidated Casing Initiative until a pending national level grievance was resolved.

The NALC argued that the new system was causing stress, exhaustion and hardship to postal employees. The injunction was dismissed by the federal district court on Nov. 8, and now, in Phase Three, more than seventy locations country-wide are trialing the Consolidated Casing Initiative.  

What has evolved with the new system is disturbing. Carriers are unable to keep up. They are working long hours — in some cases, even longer hours than the law permits.

They are delivering mail in the dark, often late at night, in adverse weather, with little recourse for complaint. Postal carriers deliver to hundreds of houses each day — the number can range from 300-800, with an average of 600 deliveries.

Many postal carriers walk 12 miles a day. The Consolidated Casing Initiative eliminates a policy that allowed people with seniority to choose their routes. Postal workers who have been with the service for decades are seeking early retirement and attrition among new carriers is high. 

So how does this relate to the late delivery of ballots? 

Under the old system, postal carriers who had been delivering mail to the same homes regularly might have noticed if 20 or a hundred houses were missing ballots, or their customers would flag them down or ask them when ballots were arriving.

But this didn’t happen, possibly because of carriers’ lack of familiarity with routes and chaos brought on by the new system. 

It is not just the ballots from this election that are impacted. Packages are delivered late, and scanned mail and “DPS” mail — mail that is sorted by machine — is routinely late.

On the first day of the Initiative, mail was delivered late to the entire metropolitan area, except Westwood Station, where the postal service was trying to support the new Initiative.

Piles of undelivered mail routinely sit on the floor because after carriers bring mail back from unfamiliar places, the sorters don’t know what to do with it when they see it the following morning. 

Postal employees from stations not involved in the new Initiative are being sent to central stations to help with problems, leaving their original stations short-staffed.

Overtime provisions are being violated, workers are being denied annual leave and forced to work on their days off, and the Initiative requires carriers to sometimes deliver to 1,000 houses a day and to “Deliver with a sense of urgency.”

Morale is very low throughout the entire system, and postal workers are feeling tremendous stress. Under these conditions, pallets of ballots could be overlooked sitting on the floor of the General Mail Facility. 

The new Initiative is dehumanizing. It takes away one of the most revered and appreciated aspects of the carriers’ job; a real connection with people in the community being served.

Carriers share the hopes and sorrows of those they carry mail to. They deliver joyful and tragic news, and they feel integral to people’s lives.

They report feeling pride that Colorado and other states have some of the best voting numbers in the country, largely because of the vote-by-mail system.

Many postal workers felt distressed about the ballot problem. When they realized their error, supervisors and carriers reportedly rushed out on Tuesday to try to get the ballots to houses before the 7 p.m. polling deadline. They did not alert the Secretary of State’s Office, which could have taken measures to keep the polls open.

We don’t know for sure if the late delivery of ballots affected the outcome of the recent Colorado Municipal elections, but it may have affected at least one race — the Aurora Mayoral race.

There were five candidates running to become mayor of Aurora, and two candidates Omar Montgomery, a progressive, African American Democrat, and Republican Mike Coffman, who was defeated by Jason Crow for the 6th congressional district of Congress in 2018, were separated by less than 250 ballots by the time Coffman declared victory. 

It is likely that this new mail system could affect future elections all over the country as service is further disrupted. This begs the question of why D.C. is instituting a system that generates such chaos? Is this an attempt to undermine performance so that a pitch can be made for privatization — a scenario opposed by postal workers nationwide?  

It’s time to reinstate the old system — one that worked well for more than 200 years. Either that, or perhaps we should have the executives in D.C. see what it is like to deliver mail for 10-15 hours a day, to 1,000 houses. Every day. Six days a week.

I don’t think that most people could physically or emotionally manage it.

Diana Bray, Psy.D., psychologist, mother, and climate advocate, is running for U.S. Senate in Colorado.