The Ottumwa Courier

March 26, 2013

Congressional bill keeps delivery at six days but doesn’t solve the larger issue

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Congress passed a bill last week requiring the U.S. Postal Service to continue delivering mail six days a week. While this may be the answer some people are looking for, it may also be creating additional problems.

“The critical issue is that we’re losing $25 million a day,” said Richard Watkins, corporate communications spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Kansas City. “We just don’t have the mail volume to justify six-day delivery. There’s no single solution to bring us back, but five-day delivery would help bridge the $20 billion gap by 2016.”

Decreasing first-class mail and dramatic financial losses prompted the Postal Service to announce in February that delivery would be reduced to five days a week. Post offices would still be open on Saturday, and packages and prescription medications would continue to be delivered six days a week. Watkins said the logical choice to try to stay afloat was to reduce delivery days based on mail volume.

This comes after a restructuring that reduces hours that rural post offices would be open. This plan is still in effect and will continue through September 2014.

If the president signs the continuing resolution from Congress, Watkins says the Postal Service’s governing board will then have to meet to determine its next step.

“We’re trying to avoid the potential of the Postal Service being a burden on the public,” Watkins said.

A survey released in mid-February showed a vastly different public opinion to a reduction in delivery days. The Postal Service released an independent survey that showed 80 percent of Americans surveyed supported a five-day delivery schedule. These results included both urban and rural residents, as well as all age groups. This show of support seems to be in conflict with what Congress was hearing from  constituents.

“If the vast majority (of those surveyed) agreed with the new delivery schedule, Congress must be hearing something different,” Watkins said. “Clearly the survey showed support.”

But the bottom line, Watkins says, is finding a way to solve the Postal Service’s financial problems.

‘It’s about making the post office cost effective and providing universal service,” he said. “We visit 150 million mailboxes six days a week, and we have to drive the cost down.”

Just this past weekend, protesters across the country rallied to show support of six-day delivery. In Des Moines, protesters lined up in front of the main post office, saying Congress should also change a 2006 law that requires the Postal Service to pre-fund future retiree health benefits. This would save money and keep the delivery schedule as it is.

“We agree with (a pre-fund change),” Watkins said. “The requirements are unreasonable. We need to find a way to lengthen the time frame.”

However, he added that this is a completely separate issue from the Congress continuing resolution. Future retiree health benefits are not part of the continuing resolution the president will be receiving.

From the Postal Service’s standpoint, the issue now is devloping a suitible plan for addressing the losses that increase every day.

“Given the necessary flexibility, we can make a course correction. It’s difficult to deliver with one hand tied behind your back,” he said. “There are necessary and warranted changes that need to be made. (The Postal Service) is designed to process 200 billion pieces of mail a day, but we’re down to 165 billion. We need to be able to base our service on workload.”

This has been done on a small scale through decreasing the overall number of employees by 193,000 since 2006, mainly through retirements and early-outs. Watkins says this softened some of the blow, but isn’t a long-term solution.

“Basically, we want to continue to be self-supporting. We use no tax-payer money for daily operations, and we want to keep it that way,” he said. “We’re not asking for a bailout or taxpayer money. We want the flexibility to be able to make changes based on workforce and mail volume.”