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What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

So much has been happening with the one of the nation's most enduring government agencies. Here's a breakdown of what you need to know.

The U.S. Postal Service and its budget woes have suddenly been thrust to the forefront of public discussion and political debate.

With an unprecedented number of people across the country expected to vote by mail amid the pandemic, the Postal Service is playing an even more critical role this election season. Yet it is navigating a financial crisis years in the making that has worsened considerably because of the coronavirus crisis.

President Donald Trump’s criticism of mail ballots and the Postal Service in recent months has complicated the crisis, raising concerns that one of the nation’s oldest institutions is being politicized. His appointee as Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, is a prominent Trump donor who in recent weeks has laid out changes to operations to try to cut some costs, including curtailing overtime.

Over the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called House lawmakers back into session to try to address changes to the Postal Service ahead of the November general election.

With news and social media posts swirling about this long-running institution, here are a few things to understand:

What’s going on with the Postal Service’s finances?

The Postal Service’s budget issues are not new.

The United States Postal Service has been almost entirely self-funded for decades, meaning it does not use taxpayer dollars for operating expenses.

But as the volume of first-class mail has declined over the years due to people using different methods to send messages and other items, the Postal Service’s revenue has also taken a hit. While a recent increase in packages being sent has helped, the volume of its first-class mail fell 30 percent between 2010 and 2019.

Meanwhile, its debt has habitually outpaced revenue, thanks partly to rising compensation and benefits costs, including a 2006 mandate that the Postal Service pre-fund future retiree health benefits.

Related: Politifact: Widespread Facebook post blames 2006 law for US Postal Service’s financial woes

The financial issues have mattered. A March report from the Postal Regulatory Commission found that the service had not met its service performance targets for first-class mail for five straight years.

The coronavirus has exacerbated some of the Postal Service’s issues.

In recent months, there have been scattered stories across the country of mail slowdowns. For instance, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that some residents had gone weeks without receiving mail.

What’s been happening lately?

Since DeJoy took over as postmaster general in June, the Postal Service has changed some of its top leadership and made cost-efficiency changes like limiting overtime hours and late trips for delivery, according to news reports.

There have also been news reports that the Postal Service was decommissioning hundreds of letter-sorting machines across the country, raising concerns that doing so could lead to further slowdowns.

Meanwhile, Trump has loudly criticized both the service and mail-in voting in recent months, which some suspect is an intentional effort to slow down mail service ahead of the election.

That concern was stoked when Trump on Thursday made comments that seemed to confirm that his opposition to a $25 billion emergency funding grant for the Postal Service was tied to his opposition to expanded vote-by-mail operations this year, although he later seemed to walk part of that back.

Postal Service officials have sought to reassure voters that the agency has the capacity to handle an influx of election mail. In an op-ed in USA Today, Postal Service executives David Williams and Thomas Marshall noted that the agency delivers more than 425 million pieces of mail a day “and our best estimates are that election mail will account for less than 2 percent of all mail volume from mid-September until Election Day.”

What’s been going on locally?

Some Floridians have reported instances of mail delays or issues in recent months, but it’s unclear whether they are isolated anecdotes or are indicative of larger slowdowns or problems. Other Floridians have reported no issues with their mail service in recent months.

Alberta Brown came to the downtown St. Petersburg post office on Monday to mail birthday cards to her nieces. The 61-year-old said her unemployment checks are arriving later because of Postal Service delays and is concerned about the fight over funding. She said she’s opted to drop off her ballot in person and said she would be concerned if she had to vote by mail.

“We need the post office,” she said. “We’re dependent on them.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, put out a call on social media for constituents to share their recent experiences with the Postal Service. She said she’s gotten a “flood of concern,” including stories about people who complained of not getting mail or checks in a timely fashion. One resident currently staying out of state apparently told Castor that their mail ballot for the Aug. 18 primary was sent from the county elections office on July 29 — but as of Aug. 13 had still not arrived.

Mike Searle, president of the Tampa Area Local #259 chapter of the American Postal Workers Union, said his members for years have been having to make adjustments amid budget crunches and dwindling volumes of first-class mail.

When asked about news reports that the Postal Service was decommissioning letter-sorting machines, Searle said that a couple machines were dismantled in Tampa but that it was “based on the amount of mail we lost.”

Searle also said that, locally at least, employees are still able to work overtime if necessary.

“Here, locally, they are still giving overtime when they have to, the mail is moving,” Searle said. “We’re not leaving any mail behind.”

Tony Neri, maintenance director for the American Postal Workers Union of Florida, said the removal of machines was begun before DeJoy was appointed. But he said now is not the time for machines to be removed, before an influx of election-related mail for the 2020 general election.

“In the last few years, the mail has gotten slower substantially,” Neri said. “It’s getting worse.”

Will the blue collection box that I typically use be taken away?

Last week, pictures on social media of blue mail collection boxes being hauled away caused a stir nationally, with some people questioning why it was being done ahead of elections.

In a statement, Postal Service spokesman David Walton said that his organization reviews collection boxes regularly “to identify redundant/seldom-used collection boxes as first-class mail volume continues to decline.”

But he said that none of the collection boxes were removed from the Suncoast District — which serves Hillsborough, Hernando, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Manatee, Orange and about 20 other counties — in the past eight years.

Walton said that, “given the recent customer concerns,” the Postal Service will postpone removing the blue boxes for 90 days — until after the November election. He also noted that any boxes that would be identified for potential removal have notices placed on them to give customers an opportunity to comment.

How do states’ mail-ballot deadlines play a role?

In late July, the general counsel for the U.S. Postal Service sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee warning that the state’s deadlines for for requesting and casting mail ballots didn’t fit with the service’s delivery processes.

The Washington Post reported last week that similar letters were sent to 45 others states, as well.

The Postal Service’s concerns about delivery time for mail ballots are not new. It has recommended that, even though most first-class mail gets delivered in two to five days, voters return their mail ballots at least one week before the due date.

In Florida, the due date for mail ballots to be received — not postmarked — is 7 p.m. on the day of the election.

Florida law allows voters to request mail ballots as late as 10 days before an election, and for county elections offices to mail ballots to voters as close as eight days before an election.

Some states have even more narrow time frames, allowing voters to request mail ballots less than a week before an election. In fact, Florida in 2019 pushed back the deadline to request a mail ballot from six days before to 10 days before, recognizing that sending mail takes time.

In a statement, Lee said she had “made it a top priority to engage with local elections officials and the (the Postal Service) regarding the timely delivery and return of vote-by-mail ballots for the August and November elections.” She said that “the majority of supervisors of elections” in Florida are not reporting issues with the Postal Service and mail ballots.

Should I be worried about voting by mail?

In Florida, voters have multiple methods to vote, including vote-by-mail, early voting and voting at the polls on the day of the election.

Voters who opt to vote by mail can take several steps to ensure their ballot arrives in a timely fashion and is counted.

That includes requesting a mail ballot well ahead of the deadline. In general, requests for mail ballots stand through the calendar year of two general elections.

Related: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here's what you need to know

Once a county elections office has a mail ballot request on file, it can mail out the ballot as early as 40 days before an election for domestic voters.

Voters should also consider filling out and returning their mail ballot promptly, and checking with their county supervisor of elections office to ensure the ballot was received. Voters can track online to see whether their county supervisor of elections office has received their mailed ballots.

In Florida, voters can also opt to return their mail ballots to secure drop boxes in their counties. The drop boxes are generally located at supervisor of elections offices and at early voting sites. Voters should check with their county supervisor of elections for locations and hours of availability of drop boxes.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Natalie Weber and engagement producer Bernadette Berdychowski contributed to this report.

What has been your experience lately with the U.S. Postal Service? Email your stories to aross@tampabay.com.

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