“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor COVID-19 stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Except for the pandemic mention, these words have long been the unofficial motto of U.S. Postal Service letter carriers. They were chiseled in granite on the monumental 1912 New York General Post Office. They are lived daily by hundreds of thousands of postal workers.
For their fellow citizens, the mail has assumed new importance with millions shut in by the pandemic.
Private-sector carriers such as United Parcel Service — founded in Seattle — and FedEx can’t begin to fill the demand for all manner of goods to be delivered at American doorsteps. Many of us rely on mail-order pharmacies, too.
The Postal Service is essential, affordable and goes everywhere. As in the 1918 influenza pandemic, the agency has continued its logistical feat during COVID-19. Meanwhile, at least 12,000 of its workers have been infected and 67 have died.
Not surprisingly, the Postal Service is the most popular of federal agencies (even surpassing the National Park Service).
Increased voting by mail in the November election adds even greater importance to the agency’s smooth performance.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has long been an enemy of the Postal Service, repeating the false assertion that it loses money by delivering for Amazon, calling the agency “a joke” and threatening to strangle its funding.
Now, his new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, is imposing draconian cutbacks, including eliminating overtime.
In an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post, DeJoy states that USPS “must make immediate, lasting and impactful changes in our operations and in our culture.”
Among the specifics are major changes to operations, such as leaving mail at delivery centers if it might delay carriers, ending extra and late trips (which help ensure all mail moves swiftly) and limiting “park points” where carriers park their vehicles and walk to make deliveries. Critics say these measures will delay the mail and hurt competitiveness.
DeJoy has no postal experience, and his leadership of a North Carolina logistics company in no way prepared him for the scale and complexity of the Postal Service. By contrast, his predecessor Megan Brennan began as a letter carrier.
DeJoy is a major Trump and Republican donor.
Such appointments aren’t unheard-of in U.S. history, especially when the Post Office was a major patronage machine.
Democratic political kingmaker James Farley served as Franklin Roosevelt’s postmaster general (while also serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee). But Farley was unusually capable. He ensured that Post Office employment remained stable during the Depression (thus not adding to unemployment), oversaw construction of new postal buildings and commissioned art to enhance the public spaces. The New York building mentioned above is named the James A. Farley Building.
Such talent, commitment and vision are needed in this position more than ever. As with any business, you can’t cut your way to success or sustainability.
The agency’s troubles have been long in coming. The cabinet-level U.S. Post Office Department — which traced its history to 1775 with Benjamin Franklin as first postmaster general — was turned into a government-owned corporation in 1970, intended to operate as a business with no government support.
This has become more difficult as email and the internet have gutted the volume of profitable first-class mail. Package delivery has provided a backstop, bringing in $22.9 billion this past year, nearly a third of total revenue.
Another roadblock was inflicted in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration. The Postal Service was required by law to pre-fund employee pensions and retiree health-care costs for the next 75 years. No other federal agency faces this burden, and it’s unknown in the private sector.
Not surprisingly, red ink has continued. For example, the Postal Service lost $2.7 billion in 2017. The losses widened to $4.5 billion in this year’s first quarter. And this was before the full effects of the pandemic shutdown really began affecting revenue and bringing new costs to keep these front-line workers safe.
Officials predict $22 billion lost over the next 18 months.
Still, for context, this $22 billion represents 0.234% of the unified federal budget or 0.848% of discretionary spending.
DeJoy’s changes will hurt more than consumers. In addition to barring overtime, job cutbacks can’t be far behind.
Postal workers are twice as likely to be Black as those in the private sector (26.8% vs. 11.5%). Haley Brown, co-author of an analysis of potential cuts for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote that “forcing large-scale cuts on the Postal Service is a hammer blow to the Black middle-class.”
And the hammer would be on top other blows to low-paying jobs that have disproportionately affected people of color.
No wonder House Democrats are resisting DeJoy’s move, not least because of its danger in the election. Thirty-five states allow no-excuses absentee voting or, like Washington, vote entirely by mail.
“While these changes in a normal year would be drastic, in a presidential election year when many states are relying heavily on absentee mail-in ballots, increases in mail delivery timing would impair the ability of ballots to be received and counted in a timely manner — an unacceptable outcome for a free and fair election,” according to a letter from Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chairperson of a government operations subcommittee of the Committee on Oversight and Reform.
A more constructive approach is to fund the Postal Service appropriately through the crisis. Then, look for avenues that might build new revenue. For example, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders support using the post office as part of a new banking system to help low- and middle-income people.
But with the Senate in Republican hands, it’s unlikely Democrats can stop the damage. And most elected Republicans would be satisfied to see the Postal Service, with its powerful union, cut severely or entirely privatized. This, even though privatization in parts of Europe and Japan has turned in higher costs, lower levels of service and replacement of full-time employees with gig workers.
Republicans generally oppose voting by mail, saying it encourages fraud. The evidence doesn’t back this up.
For most of American history, the post office wasn’t seen as a business. It was no more expected to turn a profit than the Army or Navy — or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was intended to connect the nation as a public good.
Even the 1970 law contained this: “The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people.” The agency was to be “operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States.”
That gets more to the heart of the matter. The private sector can provide many goods. But in a mixed economy, as we still have, some essentials must remain part of the commons.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.