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In 2018, Joan McNeil opened her mail one spring day to find a letter with devastating news: Her former student had been killed in Afghanistan
As McNeil walked back to her house, she began to sob. Her mail carrier saw her distress and came to her side.
"He read the letter and put his arms around me, and we sat in my grass and I cried," McNeil, a 56-year-old retired teacher from Chandler, Arizona, told NBC News by phone. "My kids are at college and I was by myself, but I wasn’t alone."
McNeil is one of thousands of Americans across the country who have spent weeks waging a grass-roots campaign to “save” the Postal Service, which they say plays a vital role in their communities. These Americans have been showing their support of the federal agency by writing to their representatives, buying stamps and postal supplies, and sharing stories on social media about their appreciation for the service.
Supporters like McNeil say they don't trust Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s promise on Aug. 18 to suspend further changes to the Postal Service until after the November 2020 presidential elections. Despite DeJoy’s assurance that he wanted to “avoid even the appearance” of disruption to mail-in voting, he stopped short of promising to reverse changes already made, some of which predated his appointment, such as the removal of blue mailboxes and the decommissioning of 671 letter-sorting machines at facilities across the country.
Fears of 'permanent damage'
Though DeJoy claims to have stopped these activities, the reduction in mail capacity, and the doubt that has now arisen for citizens, leads me to believe that there will be ongoing trouble,” McNeil said. She fears “permanent damage” has already been done.
Activists Sunday evening danced and sang in front of DeJoy’s Washington D.C. home, chanting “No justice, no sleep!” and calling for increased funding for the agency and assurance that the Postal Service would be resourced to effectively handle mail-in-ballots. The event’s organizers, Shut Down DC, called DeJoy’s “backtracking” the previous week “a big victory,” but reminded attendees: “We’re not done.”
The protest came a day after the House voted 257-150 to pass a bill to fund the service with a further 25 billion dollars and fully reverse previous cost-cutting changes, which is expected to meet resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Sharon Pardini has voted through mail-in ballots in the last three elections, and says her community of Richland, Washington, has always previously trusted the system. She has a disability and struggles to stand in line for long periods, but after receiving notice that her mail-in ballot might not be counted in time for November’s election, hand-delivering it to her polling station is the only way she feels confident casting her vote.
“I’m not relying on the USPS since DeJoy has taken over,” Pardini, 63, told NBC News over the phone. “I want to make sure my vote is counted.”
Critics have pointed to DeJoy’s avoidance of questions about the disproportionate effect changes to the Postal Service have on often-marginalized groups such as the elderly, veterans, or those in rural communities, where USPS is often the only delivery option available for essential goods like prescription medication.
Literal life and death concerns
Terry Hogue, 63, and her husband, Ralph Hogue, are one of the 46 million American households served by USPS’ rural service. Hogue says the damage caused by significant delays in deliveries of essential goods, particularly prescription medication, continues to hurt her family
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Ralph Hogue relies on USPS and UPS to deliver lifesaving medication to treat his diabetes, autoimmune disorders and other health conditions. About half of Ralph Hogue’s essential medication deliveries, including insulin, have been slow to arrive at their rural unincorporated community of Caddoa, Colorado. Terry Hogue fears that even if they do receive the medication, heat damage caused by the delays could make the medication ineffective. But they have no choice but to wait.
“People in rural communities have very limited resources. We have to be able to rely on the postal service that's always been there for us,” she said. We've kind of taken them for granted, and we can't any longer.”
As concern grows over changes to the Postal Service, some protesters wanted to show their appreciation for their neighborhood mail carrier by using the hashtag #MyBestUSPSMail on Twitter. In these posts, verified by NBC News’ Social Newsgathering team, users thanked postal workers not just for the goods they delivered, but also for becoming pillars of the community.
In some communities, the Postal Service is a lifeline for the most vulnerable, some social media users said.
"Every day, the postman would knock and shout 'Hello!' to my mother who was elderly," wrote Debbie Daro, 67, from Metuchen, New Jersey on Twitter. "He always made sure she answered before he left."
Tuesday a 'Day of Action' to thank postal workers
Americans supporting the USPS plan to rally at in-person demonstrations outside post offices across the country on Tuesday in a “Day of Action” organized by the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). The union is calling on the Senate to approve the additional $25 billion emergency funds laid out in Saturday's bill, much of which they say would help cover revenue losses and operations expenses from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for an end to what they call "the mail slowdown policies" implemented under DeJoy.
Ahead of Tuesday, APWU President Mark Dimondstein urged union workers and volunteers to fight for the service, the only government agency to be explicitly established in the United States Constitution.
“What’s at stake is whether the public postal service is going to continue to belong to all of you, belong to all of our families, and belong to our neighborhoods,” Diamondstein said during a Facebook live on Aug. 21.
But reforms have already left some questioning whether they will be able to depend upon the institution in future.
“It’s pretty bad when you can’t trust the United States Postal Service. It’s supposed to be neutral,” said Pardini, who plans to submit her Washington state mail-in ballot in person this November. “It’s not supposed to be a Democrat versus Republican thing. It’s mail.”