The year 2006 was the best ever for the USPS. Automated mail processing was significantly reducing costs, and productivity was at an all-time high. The Post Office wasn't designed to make a profit, but we were flush with cash, and Congress had dollar signs in its eyes. Legislation was passed requiring the Post Office to pre-fund employee retirement benefits for the next 75 years in a 10-year span, something no other company has to do. Money had to be set aside for retired employees who weren't even born yet. Those $5.5 billion annual payments went directly into the Treasury where Congress could spend it however it wanted. It was nothing more than a cash grab.
Then the economy went bad and Internet use took off. Mail volumes were declining and revenue was going down. The Post Office does not rely on taxpayer money, supporting itself solely through the sale of postage and services. Things began getting tight, and the Post Office asked for relief from the pre-funding requirement. Congress said no. The postal service had to begin other cost-cutting measures -- staffing was cut, vacant positions were absorbed or left unfilled, small Post Offices were closed. All of this disrupts service to the public. But it wasn't enough. Soon, bigger facilities were being shut down. You all know our local mail processing facility is still scheduled to be closed, right? Still not enough. Now the Postmaster General is talking about cutting mail delivery to five days per week. That will result in the layoff of thousands of people. Do we really want that?
Throughout the bad economic times, the USPS has done better than most companies, but the pre-funding requirement is sucking the life out of the postal service. There are those in Congress who question whether the government should even be in the mail delivery business, and advocate privatizing the service. You do know that private means for-profit, don't you? Sell off the best parts to the highest bidder, and the heck with the rest. There are other shipping companies, you say, we will just use them. Did you know that UPS, Fed-Ex and most other shipping companies drop off pallets packages every day at the local post offices? It's called Last Mile delivery and they do this because it's cheaper for these other companies to have us deliver the packages, rather than their own drivers. And why is it cheaper? Because the USPS has what's called the Universal Service Obligation. We deliver to every address in the country. Every address. That's how you can send a letter all the way across the country for just 46 cents. If the USPS privatizes, or just goes away, will you still be able to do that? Not a chance!
What can I do, you ask? Legislation has been introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives that will allow the USPS to make necessary changes, and will relieve the crushing burden of the pre-funding requirement. Several studies have shown that the retirement fund is already over-funded, and returning some of that money will allow the USPS to innovate and compete fairly. Call or email your senators and representatives and tell them you value the post office, and urge them to support the current proposed legislation. Better yet, write them letter.
I'm a mailman. I could be your mailman. And I still like my job.
Kurt Eckrem, who has worked for 22 years as a mailman, lives in Mukilteo.
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