WASHINGTON — The $2 trillion congressional coronavirus assistance package would provide badly needed relief for millions of Americans and businesses but little for one organization already in desperate financial health.
The U.S. Postal Service has been in money trouble for years. Now, COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, is forcing the quasi-governmental agency into a fight for its life.
“What we’ve seen in the pandemic is the collapse of mail,” Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the government operations subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, said by phone. “While people are shipping packages, mail volume has collapsed.”
Unless Congress acts quickly, the decline in mail because of COVID-19 could soon close the constitutionally mandated mail service, according to Connolly and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the full Committee on Oversight and Reform. They called the situation “a national emergency” as they proposed postal relief measures.
“As a direct result of the coronavirus crisis, it has become clear that the Postal Service will not survive the summer without immediate assistance from Congress and the White House,” Maloney and Connolly wrote in a letter Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Postal Service officials warn that, without immediate intervention, the precipitous drop off in mail use across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic could shutter the Postal Service’s doors as early as June.”
Although Connolly and Maloney linked COVID-19 to a potential “economic collapse of the Postal Service at a time when our country needs it most,” the USPS has been in bad shape for many years. As a quasi-governmental agency, its operations generally are funded through the sale of its goods and services and not by tax revenue.
For the first quarter of 2020, revenue from first-class mail, marketing mail and periodicals dropped, while shipping and package revenue increased. “However, revenue growth in our package business will never be enough to offset imbalances in the Postal Service’s business model,” Postmaster General and CEO Megan Brennan said in a November financial news release. That “must be addressed through legislative and regulatory reforms in order to secure a sustainable future.”
Postal officials declined repeated requests for comment on COVID-19’s impact.
The pandemic has taken its toll on postal workers. So far, 65 of 630,000 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. None has died. A USPS statement says “there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail … There is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.”
Even so, Connolly pointed “to the anxiety of the workforce that is out and about every day … delivering, distributing, shipping and processing … all of that’s taken for granted.”
As Congress moved toward approval of a coronavirus package Wednesday, Connolly did not expect inclusion of the Postal Service financial assistance he and Maloney proposed. The legislation does not have provisions developed in Connolly’s subcommittee that would supply $25 billion in emergency appropriations to the USPS and eliminate its current debt.
A proposal in the legislation for new postal borrowing authority is not enough, according to the House chairs. “Like many other companies and industries across our country that are receiving substantial infusions of liquidity, the Postal Service needs our help now,” they wrote in boldface type. “Merely increasing the ability of the Postal Service to borrow money will not solve this problem.”
Connolly blamed Senate Republicans and the White House. McConnell’s office did not reply to a request for comment.
While airlines and other businesses are included in the legislation, “Somehow the Postal Service is not worthy of any financial assistance in the midst of this crisis,” Connolly said. “It’s to me an outrageous situation. We could have completely returned the Postal Service to solvency and got it started back on its feet and guaranteed continued uninterrupted service to the American people during this crisis and beyond. We’ve decided we’re going to help well-healed industries that have connections, and we’re going to let the Postal Service hang in the wind.”
In a message to his members, American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein urged Congress “to act immediately to ensure the financial viability of the Postal Service. We were deeply disappointed that stimulus legislation nearing passage Wednesday does not include vital relief for the Postal Service.”