As the coronavirus pandemic has burned across the United States, we’ve heard a lot about frontline heroes. The efforts by doctors, nurses, health care workers and first responders are immeasurable to the country.
There is one group of essential workers rarely mentioned in the same light as medical and emergency personnel. We are reminded of it, however, every time employees of the U.S. Postal Service deliver letters and packages to our homes and businesses.
Postal workers may not be saving lives in the way hospital workers are but they perform a valuable service in a supply chain that delivers critical needs every day. It can be medicines, government literature, daily mail or newspapers. And as the nation continues to utilize voting-by-mail, the Postal Service will be more crucial. With the nation still in the grip of COVID-19 and more people sticking closer to home, the importance of the U.S. mail system grows.
But the system is in trouble and needs federal help. Too many in the public often assume that the Postal Service receives government funding when it doesn’t. The Postal Service is self-funding, and while it does benefit from not paying local and state property or real estate taxes, it only receives revenue through its services and postal products. And it is a big business — its 630,000 labor force was part of a $71 billion enterprise in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2019. However, tough times lie ahead.
In the past fiscal year, the Postal Service delivered 143 billion pieces of mail to more than 160 million delivery addresses, many in rural areas. Because of the pandemic and a significant drop in mail volume, the Postal Service projects a $22 billion net operating loss over the next 18 months. That could swell to a $54 billion loss long-term, an amount that could bring down the 240-year-old system.
A lifeline is needed now. In an earlier stimulus funding measure passed by Congress and signed by the president, a $10 billion loan was granted but became bogged down when the Trump Administration insisted on redoing a contract that the Postal Service has with Amazon. A new stimulus bill now being shaped in Congress could provide $25 billion. Minnesota U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has endorsed the funding and taken the effort to a higher level by supporting hazard pay for USPS workers, a step that we see as unrealistic in these financial times.
If you are reading this editorial in a weekly newspaper, it is likely the Postal Service delivered the paper. The service is vital to newspapers everywhere and that is why the National Newspaper Association and the Minnesota Newspaper Association are backing federal funding. “The delivery of the printed newspaper is a critical element for the newspaper’s economic sustainability,” the NNA said in announcing its support.
It is hard to imagine Congress not acting to shore up any other function of the federal government facing similar challenges. But the Amazon delivery contract and a desire by some politicians to privatize the mail system are strong influencers. And there are obstacles for the Postal Service to overcome beyond the impacts of COVID-19.
One major hurdle facing the Postal Service is an estimated $130 billion in unfunded employee benefits for health insurance and retiree benefits. Sacrifices are likely if the Postal Service is to survive.
With 31,000 post offices today in the country, some rural facilities may face closing. The cost of mailing letters and packages will go up. Mail delivery six days a week may have to be reduced to five days. Such steps will aid the sustainability of the service.
But a first step will be federal aid, which should be tied to realistic cost-saving measures for the future. When you understand that nearly 3,000 Postal Service workers have contracted coronavirus, now is not the time to play politics with an essential government service that is staffed by dedicated workers who risk their health and welfare every day on the job.
— An editorial from the Adams ECM Publishers Editorial Board. Reactions welcome. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.