An old and dear friend of ours is in serious, in fact, life-threatening trouble. This friend predates the Constitution and was born before the Declaration of Independence was signed by our founding fathers. Surviving the tests of time, wars, hurricanes, blizzards, pandemics, recessions, depressions and “gloom of night,” the U.S. Mail has made its way to our homes day after day. In the spirit of loyalty and dedication to duty, Americans have been faithfully served by our neighbors and kin who work to get our mail processed and delivered. We should not abandon them now when they need us most.
I’m a retired postal employee — I served for 33 years and worked my way from letter carrier to postmaster. I’d like to share my perspective with you. To do so, I’ll need to give you a brief history before explaining the current situation.
1970 saw a transition from the original Post Office Department to the U.S. Postal Service. Congress decreed that the USPS should be a quasi-independent entity. The idea was for the USPS to be fully operational on its own revenue. In fact, to this very day, the USPS carries out its mission without any taxpayer funding.
The 1970 statute established the Postal Rate Commission, similar to the way utility rates are set. It also set up the Board of Governors, appointed by the president with Senate approval.
The net effect was that the USPS could not set rates above inflation and could not compete in a way to inhibit competition. There was never any intent to be a profit generator or to dominate the market. Congress believed that the USPS was as necessary to the American public and economy as other federal agencies. We don’t expect the FDA or EPA to make money — we expect them to provide a service, namely to protect our food supply and our environment. The USPS was set up to pay its bills but not to turn a fast buck while it provided universal mail delivery to America.
For many years the USPS fulfilled its mission. It operated in a fashion very similar to that of the military, always maintaining efficiency and effectiveness. Rigorous auditing of every aspect of postal operations was a daily occurrence. Mail volume and work hours were always monitored to maximize productivity throughout the system. As the internet and social media caused drops in mail volume, staffing needs were immediately assessed and altered. The invention of the bar code brought a new age of automation that further reduced staffing requirements. The Postal Service has continuously operated with as close to a skeleton crew as possible. But always, the mission came first: The idea of delaying First Class Mail was never imagined or tolerated.
It might also be helpful to understand the enormous volume of mail moved by the USPS. Here’s a comparison: The USPS moves 100 times more mail every month than UPS and FedEX combined do each year! Delivery is universal across America — that means every address every day! Also, keep in mind that for 55 cents, you can send a birthday or get well card from the tip of Florida to the far side of Hawaii — making the USPS still the best bargain in the world.
2006 brought a dramatic and devastating blow to the USPS. The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act forced the funding of employee health and retirement benefits to be paid 75 years in advance. No corporation does this nor would any survive if they were forced to do this. This unnecessary cost is over $5 billion each year. Is it any wonder the USPS is having financial problems?
The COVID pandemic has hit the USPS as hard as it has virtually every industry. But Congress is, once again, not being consistent. For example, the airline industry got a COVID bailout payment of $50B with no strings attached. That amount of money was warranted because roughly 75 million Americans per year rely on the continued existence of airlines. Why then would the Postal Service, which serves every one of the 330 million Americans every single day, get only 20% of what the airlines got? Additionally, in order to qualify for this Band-Aid, the USPS has had to make concessions that negatively impact employees and customers alike.
We now are brought to a new and even more sinister crisis. The current administration is taking direct steps to undermine the mission and very existence of the USPS.
It’s clear there are both short-term and long-term reasons for the extreme lengths to which USPS enemies are resorting. For purely political reasons, voting by mail is being undermined. Additionally, conservatives have had their eye on postal privatization since the Reagan administration. They see it as a get rich quick scheme!
The case is overwhelming that the Postal Service is being sabotaged for purely nefarious political reasons. With a pandemic burning across our nation during an election year, doesn’t it seem reasonable that the government would take every precaution to protect both voters and poll workers from COVID infection? Without any evidence whatsoever, the administration is falsely claiming that mailed-in ballots are somehow compromised. Many states have been voting by mail for many years. Did you know that mail-in voting existed during the Civil War? With hundreds of millions of votes cast by mail, the rate of fraud is less than 0.00025%.
It must also be stated that the additional volume of ballots going out to voters would be no problem at all for the USPS. Several times per week every address gets an ad from the grocery store — this wouldn’t be much different. The actual sorting of ballot mail is virtually 100% automated to delivery units — the same is true for ballots being returned to county recorders.
The newly appointed postmaster general has already had a huge negative impact on the Postal Service. With no postal experience at all, he has ordered the reorganization of the entire management structure, resulting in a consolidation of decision making by him alone. He has fired or reassigned 23 headquarters-level managers. Transportation schedules to and from major distribution centers have been altered, resulting in mail delays to delivery offices. Service needs and employee absences may no longer be covered by using overtime. Due to operating with bare minimum staff already, the result is again delays in mail delivery. Taking direct aim at the vote-by-mail process, each county that mails ballots could suddenly see their per piece cost nearly triple — from 20 cents to 55 cents. Thus far, Congress is not allocating any additional funds to cover these costs.
I’ve spoken with current postal managers in Arizona and across the country. They all paint the same frightening picture of mail bottlenecks and delays. In some smaller offices carrier routes are being left undelivered on some days. Priority packages, many of which contain lifesaving medications for seniors and veterans, are delayed by as much as three weeks.
So, I hope you can understand that in the short term, voter confidence is being unnecessarily undermined in order to impact the 2020 election results. The long term may see the demise of the Postal Service itself. Most studies show that privatization would immediately reduce service and increase costs to all Americans. Many current post offices would be shuttered, home delivery would become very rare — you’d need to travel long distances to pick up your mail. Most surely, rural American would see the end of any postal convenience.
I’m asking you to join me in helping to keep our old and trusted friend, the United States Postal Service, around for the short and long term. Please contact your members of Congress and ask them to provide full funding for the USPS with no strings attached. Ask them to hold current USPS management accountable for processing and delivering the mail meeting the First Class Mail Standards without delays.
Ask them to make sure every American can continue to rely on a strong and independent United States Postal Service for generations to come!
Ralph Atchue is an Eloy resident and is active in the Democratic Party.