Friday, June 14, 2024

Remember Flag Day: It may not be the biggest holiday, but it celebrates one of America's most unifying symbols

The U.S. flag may be the country's nation’s 'most enduring symbol.' (Adobe Stock photo)

Today is Flag Day, which may leave some asking questions: What is Flag Day? Where did it start? And how is it different from July 4th? 

Flag Day originated in tiny Waubeka, Wisconsin, population 657. "This unincorporated Wisconsin town about 35 miles north of Milwaukee takes the day seriously," report Teresa Crawford and John O'Connor of The Associated Press. "After all, it lays claim to being the birthplace of Flag Day, thanks to a tenacious teacher in a one-room schoolhouse."

Flag Day is set aside to be a day of national pride and focuses on commemorating the historic events of June 14, 1777, "when the Continental Congress determined the composition of the nation's banner: 'Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation," Crawford and O'Connor explain. "President Woodrow Wilson issued a 1916 proclamation of June 14 as Flag Day, and in 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed the formal observance into law."

Flag day is different from Independence Day because July 4th celebrates our division from England and the country's birth. Flag Day reveres the solidification of the iconic American flag, which, from 1777 through the present, is a symbol of national unity.

Waubeka, Wisconsin, celebrates Flag Day with an old-fashioned parade complete with candy toss-outs, rows of tractors and emergency service vehicles replete with red, white and blue. But the fun doesn't stop there. Crawford and O'Connor add, "Along with the parade, the bands, the patriotism awards, the military honor guards . . . The celebration includes an annual essay contest and draws entries from across the nation — this year from New York to Nevada and Wisconsin to Texas."

Among this year's essay entrants, Neel Sood, a 4th grader from Bridgewater, N.J., wrote, "The stars and stripes 'represent a nation where immigrants like my grandparents are welcomed, where diversity is celebrated and where justice is present for all,'" AP reports. "Ryan Spang from Adell, Wisconsin, wrote, 'The American flag represents unity. We are one nation, united by our similarities and differences. We support people in our communities in times of need, and we cheer them on in times of achievement.'"

To learn more about Flag Day's history and meet Waubeka's parade "mascot" -- a delightful Jack Russell terrier with the most patriotic stance and cutest hat -- click here.

Latest round of federal grants focuses on communities with less than 10k population; helps with energy bills, projects

Workers in Washington preparing to place underground
electrical lines. (Washington State DOT photo, CC)
The federal government's newest round of grants will invest in communities with less than 10,000 people, with projects aimed at lowering residential energy bills and helping smaller communities transition to renewable energy. "The money will help fund 19 projects in Alaska, Oklahoma, Alabama, Maine and elsewhere," reports Will Wright of The Daily Yonder. "The amount of money being pumped into renewable energy sources over the last few years — particularly in rural communities — is 'game changing,' said Scott Vlaun, executive director of the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy, one of the grant recipients."

The energy installations will reach some areas that have never had electrical power before. Wright explains, "In Washington's Ferry and Okanogan counties, part of a $5 million grant is dedicated to extending underground electrical lines to about 135-190 homes that will gain access to electrical service for the first time." The Northeastern Washington counties are some of the state's poorest.

Money for rural solar will help residents and educational facilities save money. "Maine will receive about $3 million to install small solar projects that will help local families get cheaper electricity and, in some cases, allow families to move away from other, more harmful heating sources like kerosene," Wright reports. "At Mississippi's East Central Community College, a $2.8 million grant will help pay for solar installations that can provide clean power to 38 campus facilities."

This latest round of grants represents a shift in the way the applications were designed to help rural communities — especially those with a lower capacity to apply for grants — get through the grant-request process. "But in communities like those in western Maine serviced by the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy, Vlaun said this round of grants could have a big impact on the everyday lives of many rural residents," Wright adds. "Whether the current enthusiasm to spend federal dollars on renewable energy will continue may depend on the outcome of the November election, he said, and the effectiveness of propaganda aimed at reducing confidence in renewable energy."

When electrical companies shut off electricity for wildfire prevention, nursing homes can be caught unaware

Nursing homes are often forgotten during emergencies.
(Adobe Stock photo)
As climate change worsens extreme weather, some electric companies are opting to cut power as a wildfire prevention tool. The loss of electricity to entire regions, sometimes with little notice, has left some nursing home facilities scrambling for power during inclement weather.

With the increasing prevalence of preemptive power cuts, "nursing homes are being forced to evaluate their preparedness," reports Kate Ruder for KFF Health News. "But it shouldn't be up to the facilities alone, according to industry officials and academics: Better communication between utilities and nursing homes, and including the facilities in regional disaster preparedness plans, is critical to keep residents safe."

In the country's western half, nursing homes are particularly vulnerable and less likely to be prepared. "More than half of the nursing homes are within 3.1 miles of an area with elevated wildfire risk, according to a study published last year," Ruder explains. "Yet, nursing homes with the greatest risk of fire danger in the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest had poorer compliance with federal emergency preparedness standards than their lower-risk counterparts."

While the federal government mandates that nursing facilities have disaster preparedness plans, those plans don't always "include contingencies for public safety power shut-offs, which have increased in the past five years but are still relatively new," Ruder reports. "And nursing homes in the West are rushing to catch up."

Debra Saliba, director the University of California's Anna and Harry Borun Center for Gerontological Research, said "making sure nursing homes are part of [broader] emergency response plans could help them respond effectively to any kind of power outage," Ruder writes. "Too often, nursing homes are forgotten during emergencies because they are not seen by government agencies or utilities as health care facilities, like hospitals or dialysis centers, Saliba added.'"

Opinion: Keeping D-Day remembrance alive throughout this year's elections can help Americans support democracy

Omaha Beach 116th Regimental Combat Team Memorial
in Normandy, France. (Adobe Stock photo)

The 80th anniversary of D-Day occurred about a week ago, but how many Americans stopped to think about using that day's massive human undertaking as a sounding board for this year's elections? In his opinion for The New York Times, Garrett M. Graff encourages Americans to look at what the country accomplished together during the World War II years and use it as our North Star to guide how we support our democracy through this year's election cycle.

"Day by passing day, the Greatest Generation is coming toward its end. D-Day, June 6, 1944, had more than two million Allied personnel on the move across Operation Overlord, and today, perhaps a few thousand veterans remain," Graff writes. "As we mark the final passing of those who won that war, it's easy to get caught up in gauzy romanticism and lose sight of how the Axis powers unified the free world against them and showed Americans, specifically, what we are capable of."

As Americans follow this year's elections and prepare to vote, "it's worth asking what we are doing with the legacy that the Greatest Generation defended and bequeathed to us. . . . A story of hard-fought rights and bloodily defended liberties that each generation of Americans has handed down to the next," Graff says. "We now face the very real question of whether America will embrace a vision of a country less free and less democratic, more divided and more unequal. It would be a step backward unlike almost anything else in American history."

Consider D-Day's planning and execution. It was "a titanic enterprise, perhaps the largest and most complex single operation in human history — an effort to launch a force of more than a million men across the English Channel on more than 3,000 planes and more than 7,000 ships; to methodically transport entire floating harbors, a herculean secret project known as the Mulberries, as well as 300,500 gallons of drinking water and 800,000 pints of blood plasma, a stockpile carefully segregated, as mandated at the time, between white and Black donors."

What do we, as Americans, have in common with the soldiers and support personnel from 1944's Allied invasion? "Across the next few months, we will be hearing a lot of argument about what America is and what it isn't," Graff writes. "There's a simpler answer to that question than many would like to admit: What we'll fight for is who we are. And, as we look ahead, we must decide if we're still as willing today to fight for democracy as the generation who stormed Normandy was 80 years ago."

Quick hits: The resilient Mississippi River; pizza and sunscreen's shared ingredient; food costs; a new ice cream

 American Bald Eagle snatches its prey from the mighty Mississippi.  (Adobe Stock photo)
In the fall of 2022, the Mississippi River was drying up and commodity shipping was an expensive struggle. "Dropping water levels in the Mississippi River have caused shipping costs to rise just as harvest season approaches for many Midwestern soybean and corn farmers," reported Keely Brewer in a story for the Daily Memphian." By 2023, things had not improved. "Historic low flows turned the Mississippi River into a construction area in 2023 as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged huge quantities of sand to keep the channel open for barge traffic," reports Chloe Johnson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Earlier this year, "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that the drought that plagued the Mississippi River basin since 2022 was officially over." Despite this glorious improvement, here's how to keep caring for the mighty Mississippi

On a dairy farm where not everyone speaks the same language, confusion and frustration can impede good animal care. "Great animal welfare is only achievable when a dairy has a strong employee welfare focus," writes Dr. Kaitlyn Lutz for Lancaster Farming. "Consider these practical ideas to improve management as a step toward a culture of care for your employees and cows: 1. Use WhatsApp -- Your Hispanic workers are using it. If you're not, you miss a huge opportunity to connect. 2. Connect over family -- Ask employees about their families. Language barrier? Check out the PONS Translate app's conversation mode. Or, share pictures. 3. Build trust -- Trust is built through small and consistent actions over time."

Titanium dioxide is found in sunscreen and pizza.
Yuck. (Adobe Stock photo)
Adding sunscreen to your frozen pizza sounds disgusting. And yet, "If you have heard of titanium dioxide at all, you probably know it as an ingredient in sunscreen. But it is also used in lots of foods, from pizza and salsa to frosting and candy—and now, there is growing concern about the potential health risks of eating it," reports Andrea Petersen of The Wall Street Journal. "Some research, mainly in animals, has suggested that eating it might be linked to immune system problems, inflammation and DNA damage that could lead to cancer. . . . The European Union has banned titanium dioxide in food since 2022."

U.S. families continue to balance needs with costs.
(Adobe Stock photo)

U.S. consumers continue to grapple with high grocery prices, which drain their budgets and leave some families struggling to make ends meet. "Results from the most recent wave of the Gardner Food and Agricultural Policy Survey demonstrate that consumers perceive inflation and high food prices to be persistent problems," reports Brenna Ellison for Farmdocdaily. "Consistent with this, a recent Gallup poll found that 41% of households identified inflation as the most important financial problem they are currently facing. . . . Some retailers like Target, Walmart, Amazon, and Walgreens have announced they will be cutting prices on thousands of items."

Crop insurance helps provide income stability for food and animal producers who must make a living despite unpredictable weather, hungry pests and insidious weeds. This year marks the biggest acreage for U.S. crop insurance coverage. "Farmers and ranchers bought crop insurance policies on more than 500 million acres of land last year, the largest amount ever, driven by the surging popularity of forage policies," reports Successful Farming. "Overall enrollment in crop insurance was up 85% in the seven years from 2016, according to Department of Agriculture data."

No-melt ice cream could help some humans stay
cleaner. (Adobe Stock photo)
A creamy, cool, delicious ice cream cone is one of summer's simple delights -- until your dip starts dripping and your cone starts crumpling. Then the slurp and smear battle ensues. Could there be a less-melty way? "Cameron Wicks, a student at the University of Wisconsin, is working on a new technology that adds naturally occurring compounds [polyphenols] to ice cream," reports Elise Mahon for University of Wisconsin News. Wicks told Mahon, "We learned that adding polyphenols to ice cream can create a product that holds its shape for over four hours at room temperature. That's pretty close to a no-melt ice cream."

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Hope rises: Housing developments are underway in Eastern Kentucky as communities rebuild after major flooding

Jenni Glendenning
By Jenni Glendenning
Institute for Rural Journalism, University of Kentucky

Eastern Kentucky’s recovery from the devastating floods of 2022 passed a significant, heartwarming milestone on Wednesday, June 5, as Melissa Neace got the keys to her new home.

Neace, of Perry County, is the 100th flood survivor to get a home built or rehabilitated by the Hazard-based Housing Development Alliance, one of several nonprofits working with state and local officials not only to rebuild for flood victims, but to address the region’s chronic shortage of housing and land available for it.

The effort has turned adversity into hope for scores of families in the region; more than 600 new homesites have been laid out, and many more are expected in the next few years with an influx of $298 million in federal disaster-relief money this year.

People involved in providing the Neace family a new home pose on its porch in Perry County’s
Blue Sky subdivision. Melissa Neace stands between the central porch pole and Gov. Andy Beshear.

“Today's celebration marks not the end but the dawn of a new chapter filled with promise and progress,” Scott McReynolds, head of HDA, which has built homes in Breathitt, Knott, Perry and Leslie counties for more than 30 years.

And not only government money is at work. “We've had hundreds of volunteers who have come out and swung a hammer, shoveled mud, whatever needed to be done,” McReynolds said. “We've had a lot of volunteers in the community that participated in case management, and the long-term recovery communities, and distribution centers.”

The outpouring of generosity extended far beyond local boundaries, McReynolds said during an event at Neace’s home in the Blue Sky subdivision next to the Wendell H. Ford Regional Airport. With donations pouring in from individuals, organizations, and even unexpected sources “like antique car clubs and Elvis impersonators,” from humble $5 contributions to substantial donations reaching $500,000.

HDA received $2.5 million from the state Rural Housing Trust Fund to build Neace’s home and 23 others, as well as to repair and renovate 16 existing homes. Other funding sources enabled it to rehabilitate about 60 more. All told, it and other agencies have built 63 new homes and rehabilitated 270, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday.

Much of that work was done with federal and state emergency funds. More housing announcements are expected after July 1, the deadline for applying for $298 million in federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief funds.

At Wednesday’s event, Beshear said the vision for housing in the region extends beyond individual homes to the creation of whole new neighborhoods such as Sky View, east of Hazard, and Chestnut Ridge in Knott County.

This fall, he said, “We're going to see houses coming up on Sky View. The possibility between all the available land is for over 300 homes. We could have 1,000 people eventually living in that community. That is not just a response, that is a solution – both to what happened and to the housing crunch and crisis that we face around Kentucky.”

Hazard Mayor “Happy” Mobelini said at the event that he believes “Perry County is better today than it was before the flood happened.”

Neace, who is orignally from Jackson, received the keys to her home with her daughters Rachel, 18, and Beth, 16, and their Husky, Nuka. They lived for 20 months in a trailer provided with emergency funds.

“I’m excited to get out of the camper but grateful to have had it because I would have been homeless if I didn’t,” said Neace, who is disabled with lupus and unable to work. “We’ve been in a small place for so long, it’s going to be great cooking meals in this big kitchen.” The girls said they were looking forward to having their own rooms and their own beds.

Blue Sky is a private development that began development before the floods, on reclaimed strip-mine land. HDA bought 12 lots to build homes for flood survivors.

Here’s a rundown of other projects, generally in the order that homes are likely to be occupied:

The Cottages at Thompson Branch in Whitesburg (Letcher County) was the first high-ground site to be developed after the floods. Two of 10 homes for survivors have been completed by Housing Oriented Ministries Established for Service (HOMES Inc.).

In Wayland (Floyd County), the Appalachia Service Project, which uses volunteer labor, is completing its 11th home for flood survivors on 4 acres the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky bought from the Wayland Volunteer Fire Department for $200,000. Families are preparing to move in this month.

In Prestonsburg (Floyd County), the state Department for Local Government and Mountain Housing Corp. of Prestonsburg will use a federal community development block grant build 33 new homes, and rehab one house, for flood survivors. Groundbreaking on New Hope Estates is expected this summer.

The largest project in the works is Chestnut Ridge, to be built in two phases on former coal property. The state first acquired 100 acres to build 147 homes, but construction will start first on 57 homes on 27 acres adjacent to the state land. Western Pocahontas Properties, a natural-resources company, donated the property, and Joe and Kelly Craft donated $4 million to the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky to start construction.

“We got started a little bit before the state did and we've had some private money, so we've been able to go ahead and get started building on this first section,” said Gerry Roll, the foundation’s founder in residence. She said the two developments are “staying coordinated on power and broadband and the main road” that is being built to the area.

These first 57 homes will be built and funded through public and private partnerships of HOMES Inc., HDA, the Appalachia Service Project and Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization.

Three other developments have master plans in the works, said Logan Fogle, spokesman for the Department for Local Government.

The first phase of Sky View would have up to 102 homes on 50 acres donated by the Ison family. Geotechnical and environmental reviews are complete, and an access road is under construction. Another 375 acres, in the next three phases, would have 300 to 350 housing sites.

Olive Branch, in Knott County near the Perry County line, has a plan for 132 homes on approximately 77 acres donated by Shawn and Tammy Adams. The Right-of-way plans are in development for the initial access road.

Grand View in Jenkins includes up to 116 homes on 92 acres donated by the Johnson family. An environmental review is underway, and funding applications for water and sewer lines are being submitted.

Also in Letcher County, the county government has outlined a comprehensive plan, allocating $8.7 million to build 29 homes in Seco and Uz. This includes the necessary infrastructure such as roads, water, sewer, and electricity.

In Breathitt County, the City of Jackson is using $2.36 million to build eight homes for flood survivors. Beshear said Thursday that FAHE, formerly the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, hopes to break ground “in the next 30 days.”

In addition to the new communities, the state’s Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund has partnered with HOMES Inc., the Housing Development Alliance, and Partnership Housing of Booneville to build 19 homes in Breathitt, Floyd, Knott, Letcher, Martin, and Perry counties, providing over $1.4 million in relief.

To the west, in Laurel County, Clayton Homes and Beshear broke ground in May on Redbud Estates in London, featuring 51 energy-efficient CrossMod® homes eligible for conventional financing programs. This type of construction, manufactured homes completed on site, could offer housing solutions for other regional developments due to the off-site construction processes and their energy efficiency.

What about rental housing, which can’t get emergency funds? The forthcoming $298 million in federal community development block grant disaster funds for 2022, can be used to build rental housing. The DLG and the state’s Kentucky Housing Corp. used a coordinated application process for $59.7 million in CDBG money for Western Kentucky tornado victims, and on June 3 announced $233 million in financing for 953 rental units in four counties.

The agencies plan to use the same approach for Eastern Kentucky, but Beshear cautioned that it will be more difficult in the east due to the region’s lack of land available for development and the lack of income to support market-priced housing. Also, apartment living is not as common in the east as it is in the west.

“People like to own the land, and it is a very important part of our history and culture because families are tied to the land, and apartment living has not been historically feasible or realistic in our area,” Roll said. “I wouldn't say people are opposed to it, as much as it's just a foreign concept, it's not something that people are accustomed to.”

There is not a lot of flat land in the region that has not been mined, making big apartment complexes unrealistic, Roll said. In addition to topography, income levels in the region often fall short of the rent needed to cover the costs of development and maintenance, making it almost impossible to maintain fair market rents.

Zack Hall, community engagement officer at the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, does believe there is a market and a need for apartment rentals in Hazard. “I'm in the 20-to-30 age group of young professionals and know of people my age who want to move back to the area but aren’t ready to buy a house yet, but there aren’t apartments available.” he said.

Pam Johnson, FAHE’s executive vice president of business development and outreach, like Roll, feels like apartment living “isn’t within the culture of the region” and feels that it would “lean more into duplexes and triplexes” when considering multifamily rentals.

Jenni Glendenning, a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky, is the David Hawpe Fellow in Appalachian Reporting for UK's Institute for Rural Journalism. Reach her at

The Affordable Connectivity Program helped millions of rural and tribal Americans gain Internet access -- now what?

ACP helped rural and tribal resident bridge the
digital divide. (Adobe Stock photo)
During the pandemic years, rural and tribal communities learned to rely on affordable internet services provided in part by the federal Affordable Connectivity Program. The more dependable and budget-friendly connection helped residents use the web for telehealth appointments, online ordering and remote learning, reports Sarah Jane Tribble of KFF Health News. In May, the ACP ran out of money, and many residents are considering what they may have to sacrifice to keep reliable internet service without the subsidy.

Although the ACP eventually enrolled around 23 million low-income households -- or one in six American families -- its funding was not renewed. "Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) challenged an effort to continue funding the program, saying during a commerce committee hearing that the program needed to be revamped," Tribble writes. Thune claimed that ACP did not reach those that "truly needed it."

Despite a hive of legislative workers trying to iron out the program's shortcomings, funding for ACP ended; however, the Biden administration "announced that more than a dozen companies — including AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast — would offer low-cost plans to ACP enrollees," Tribble reports. "The administration said those plans could affect as many as 10 million households."

Without the ACP, many rural families may be unable to bridge the digital divide. "According to a survey of participants released by the Federal Communications Commission, more than two-thirds of households had inconsistent or no internet connection before enrolling in the program," Tribble explains. "The FCC said that ending the program will affect about 3.4 million rural and more than 300,000 households in tribal areas."

Opinion: U.S. must invest in water infrastructure or face cities and towns with problems like Atlanta, or worse

Old pipes are just one part of U.S. water infrastructure
that needs repair and redesign. (Adobe Stock photo)
Reflecting on the recent water pipe bursts in Atlanta, Joseph W. Kane discusses the unwanted but predictable tide of water problems that await U.S. cities and towns in his opinion for Brookings.

"The country is once again grappling with an age-old conundrum: how to stay ahead of an increasingly intractable list of water infrastructure challenges," Kane explains. "From Flint, Mich., to Jackson, Miss., to a seemingly unending number of urban and rural communities, the country's water infrastructure is aging and in need of repair."

The "fix-it" list contains a litany of put-off or ignored problems that, should they remain on the back burner, will become an "Atlanta-sized" problem or worse. "Contaminated drinking water, including lead pollution, leaking pipes, sewer overflows, and other chronic issues persist too," Kane writes. "The ripple effects of these failures are also extensive across different systems, leading to network failures across neighborhoods and entire regions."

America's water bill is enormous, and the work that must be undertaken is staggering. "More than $600 billion in investment is estimated to be needed over the next 20 years to keep up with all the necessary improvements, according to the latest EPA national water assessments," Kane adds. "The financial pressure is immense on local utilities — and other state agencies — who are constantly trying to cobble together enough resources to stay ahead of these needs."

How do we create solutions? "The first step is to establish increased, sustained federal water funding. While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act pumped about $57 billion into a host of different water infrastructure improvements, this figure still pales in comparison to the price tags noted earlier," Kane writes. "The second step is to support continued local and state experimentation. While many utilities are struggling to simply keep up with existing repairs, that should not be an excuse for failing to test more proactive and collaborative solutions."

A few rural communities chose an emergency-only hospital instead of no local hospital

Becoming an ER-only hospital can be lifeline for 
struggling rural medical centers. (Adobe Stock photo)
Rural hospitals continue to face uphill battles to stay open and fiscally afloat. Many have reduced specialty services to cut losses, and hundreds have shut down. To stem closures, the federal government began offering hospitals the option to remain open as emergency care facilities, allowing for higher Medicare funding and reimbursement payments, reports Anna Claire Vollers for Stateline. "But there's a catch: Participating hospitals must stop all inpatient services. No labor and delivery, no inpatient surgeries, no inpatient psychiatric units."

The new designation means rural emergency centers have two patient care options: Treat and release or stabilize and move to a bigger "flagship" hospital, most likely in a metro or urban area. It's a difficult change for communities, but some have decided an ER-focused hospital is a better alternative than no hospital at all. Vollers writes, "More than two dozen hospitals across the country, including five in Mississippi, have taken the offer. . . . Community reaction has been mixed, said Chad Netterville, director of the Mississippi Hospital Association's Rural Health Alliance."

The change isn't a silver bullet for rural hospitals that face multiple issues, including an aging, sicker population and a payer mix that includes more uninsured or under-insured patients. With that combination, many smaller hospitals are deeply in debt, but their closure could hurt rural residents. "Nearly one-third of rural hospitals around the country are at risk of closing, according to a new report from the Center for Healthcare Quality & Payment Reform, a national health policy research group," Vollers reports. "Research suggests rural hospital closures increase community death rates, harm local economies and force patients to travel farther for care."

With few financial tools available, some "27 hospitals have joined the program, out of 1,700 that researchers estimate are eligible, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina," Vollers reports. "In the middle of it all, rural communities are waiting to see what this 'better-than-nothing' approach to health care will mean for them."

Modernizing the U.S. Postal Service is a huge undertaking; troubles at new processing center highlights the obstacles

The U.S. Postal service was once focused on moving
flat letters vs. packages. (Adobe Stock photo)
The opening of a new U.S. Postal Service mail and package-processing center near Atlanta exemplifies how difficult it will be to modernize the national carriers' network and delivery services. "Signs of trouble appeared days after the opening," reports Ester Fung of The Wall Street Journal. "Packages piled up on conveyor belts. . . .Trucks lined up for hours outside waiting for space at the loading docks."

Appointed Postmaster Louis DeJoy has said the work is "'simple stuff,' but union leaders are pushing against a rush to implement plans, insufficient training and poor management from inexperienced supervisors," Fung explains. "Employees said the new sorting machines were overwhelmed by the volume of mail and packages. . . . Dozens of workers didn't show up, saying work reassignments went against longstanding job-bidding processes established in collective-bargaining agreements."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service has lost money in 16 out of the past 17 years. DeJoy's overarching $40 billion plan is to update processing centers, cut costs and gain a greater market share of package shipping to turn profits. Executing those changes has been a rough route. Fung reports, "It is overhauling its vast network of sorting centers and truck routes that had long been focused on moving flat letters. [The plan] includes outfitting sorting centers with new equipment, purchasing electric vehicles to replace aging trucks, and consolidating processes and facilities."

Internal restrictions often prevent the Postal Service from recovering losses compared to its competitors, which can change prices to meet their costs. The Postal Regulatory Commission "limits what the Postal Service can charge customers," Fung reports. The Postal Service is also burdened with "a costly mandate to deliver to every address." Carriers such as FedEx and the United Parcel Service don't face those obstacles to profitability.

Because of the 2024 elections, the Postal Service is under increasing pressure to prove it can efficiently and consistently deliver mail on time. "It has to ensure it can handle mail-in ballots for coming elections as well as negotiations for new contracts with several labor unions," Fung writes. "The Postal Service currently has around 640,000 workers and it wants more flexibility to reassign employees to other positions as it restructures its network." Union leaders are concerned too many changes will hurt customer service.