OUR OPINION: Ending Saturday USPS deliveries should be last resort
For many Americans, the federal government can appear remote. In the decades between filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid and applying for Medicare, years can pass in which a person's only involvement with the U.S. government ma...
For many Americans, the federal government can appear remote. In the decades between filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid and applying for Medicare, years can pass in which a person's only involvement with the U.S. government may seem to be the annual 1040 tax form.
With one exception. For there's one arm of Washington that touches most Americans' lives several times a week. It has been doing so since the time of George Washington himself:
That's the U.S. Postal Service, an agency whose amazing service -- less than 50 cents to send a birthday card from Maine to Hawaii! -- is easy to take for granted.
It's a mistake to do so -- especially today, when the agency is under serious threat.
For the Postal Service is an important equalizing force. Like the National Park Service, it makes America a better place for all, delivering to Alaska's Aleutian Islands as well as to addresses in New York's South Bronx.
Let's keep it that way. As Congress takes a fresh look and the Postal Service reexamines its business plan, serving our vast and diverse citizenry should be bottom line.
That's why the power "to establish post offices" is in the Constitution in the first place. And it's why options such as ending Saturday delivery should be a last -- not a first -- resort.
Clearly, some things must change. The Postal Service is being hammered on both the expense and income sides. Although a quasi-independent agency, it still answers to Congress and still must provide six-day-a-week service at uniform prices across the land.
But competition is fierce for lucrative package-delivery routes. Furthermore, email, texting and Internet services have cut the volume of traditional mail.
Then there are the labor issues. "Decades of contractual promises made to unionized workers, including no-layoff clauses, are increasing the post office's costs," The New York Times reported.
"Labor represents 80 percent of the agency's expenses, compared with 53 percent at United Parcel Service and 32 percent at FedEx. ... Postal workers also receive more generous health benefits than most other federal employees."
As a result of these forces, "the agency is so low on cash that it will not be able to make a $5.5 billion payment due this month and may have to shut down entirely this winter unless Congress takes emergency action," the Times reported.
The question is, what kind of action?
And the answer is, the kind that saves the most money and generates the most revenue without compromising customer service.
As the agency's high labor costs show, Job 1 should be giving management the flexibility it needs. "Limitations on the workforce mix of full-time and part-time postal employees and workforce flexibility rules contained in contracts with USPS unions are key detriments of how postal work is organized and, thus, of its cost, the Government Accountability Office concluded last year.
"USPS officials told us that as mail volume declines, it would be more efficient to have a much higher proportion of part-time workers than is currently available under existing agreements." Another powerful change: a two-tiered structure that pays less to entry-level workers, as Chrysler and General Motors -- at Washington's urging -- are adopting.
On the revenue side, the Postal Service should be allowed to do such things as deliver beer and wine as well as carry ads on postal trucks and in post offices. City buses and subways routinely allow advertising. Why not the Postal Service?
In contrast to those big-ticket changes, cutting Saturday delivery would trim only 2 percent from the Postal Service's budget. Likewise, trucking local mail to distant sites for processing risks becoming an expense, not a savings, as newspapers and other big customers find alternative ways to make quicker deliveries.
All in all, "universal postal service is an American vision that has served communities large and small since the 1700s and was a founding principle in our Constitution," as Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said recently. The Postal Service should honor that mission by cutting costs and boosting revenues without hurting customer service.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald