Post office

The main United States Post Office at South 26th and 9th Avenue South.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

An investigation showing that U.S. Postal workers deliberately slowed delivery of millions of mail items has U.S. Sen. Jon Tester calling for those responsible to be fired.

Tester wrote the U.S. Postmaster General on Monday after the Office of Inspector General revealed that more than 2 billion mailed items were delayed nationwide over a year’s time. Investigators also discovered postal workers manipulating mail delivery time records and inaccurately reporting delayed mail.

Several postal employees, including some in Montana, reported mail being intentionally delayed so workers on another shift would have something to do.

Mail reporting delays cost the USPS $85.1 million in revenue. First class mail volume fell more than 4 percent in the first quarter of 2017.

“To be clear,” Tester wrote, “any employee who deliberately delayed mail delivery, or who knowingly misreported mail delivery should be terminated for violating the trust of America’s hardworking taxpayers and postal ratepayers.”

Tester, a Democrat, and Montana's Republican U.S. Sen Steve Daines, are both members of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which handles U.S. Postal Service matters.

In a two-day audit of eight mail distribution centers, investigators discovered more than 572,000 delayed mail items on land. However, postal officials were only reporting 369,000 delays, essentially hiding 36 percent of the problem.

The U.S. Postal Service has been in a years-long struggle as Americans do more online, from paying personal bills to shopping to selling goods. Mail volume has declined. At the same time, Congress has required USPS to pre-fund health benefits for future employees by setting aside $5.5 billion a year. USPS is the only government agency expected to pay for benefits decades in advance, and the cost burden has resulted in cuts to staffing and service.

Daily mail volume has diminished 59 billion pieces from a 2006 peak of 213 billion, to 154 billion pieces last year, according to USPS data.

Government cutbacks have repeatedly been blamed for slowed mail delivery, particularly in rural states like Montana where the Postal Service operates for fewer hours and mail sorting centers have been closed.

USPS has closed processing centers in Butte, Havre, Helena, Kalispell, Miles City and Wolf Point since 2011. More mail now moves through processing centers like the one in Billings.

Local first-class mail has a gone from two-day delivery to three-day. That schedule doesn’t include Sundays and holidays. Mail that straddles those dates can take four days for delivery. Second-class postage takes longer.

Observers say improvements aren’t on a fast track with President Donald Trump. Postal service reform hasn’t been a priority. Congressional leaders are forecasting postal reform in the next two years.

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Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.