Saturday, December 24, 2011

I'm In Love With the USPS And I Don't Care Who Knows It

One of several boxes of cherished letters.
My father was a carrier with the U.S. Postal Service for nearly 30 years before an early stroke forced him into retirement.  It was a good job, and by contemporary standards maybe a dream job. Under a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by one of the largest public employee unions in the country, he took home a comfortable pay check, enjoyed substantial health benefits for himself and for me, and accrued a pension, something that's become something of a mythical beast of benefits.  In exchange he reported for work before dawn in an atmosphere that was toxic (in part thanks to an extremely adversarial union/management relationship) and made his appointed rounds through rain and snow and heat and gloom of night.

When my grandfather (himself a USPS veteran) suggested I take the civil service exam and go into the family business, my father told me he's never let me "work on the floor with those animals."  I was willing to take his word on that.  When a man who is himself crass, sexist and somewhat racist tells you it's a rough crowd, well, that's good enough for me.

Ironically, one of the hats I wear in my current job is USPS contract employee, picking up and delivering island mail from the processing and distribution center in Scarborough.  I love it there.  The plant itself has a Rube Goldberg quality that I enjoy, and I've developed a jovial, affectionate relationship with most of the people who work there.  At this point, starting pay as a carrier would be a significant pay cut and the grousing of my buddies there confirms that I'm better off where I am in a workplace where the culture is more like a family than a business, but there's a part of me that wishes I'd taken my grandfather's advice way back when.

Of course these days the postal service is considered a sinking ship.  Facing an enormous budget shortfall, there's talk of cutting Saturday service and smaller branches exist under perpetual threat of closure.  I can't even count the number of times I've heard the phrase, "No wonder the postal office is going under..." recently.  This bothers me.  A lot.

In my teenaged years and early twenties I was an avid letter writer and sender of packages.  I loved the excitement of coming home to see if any replies had come.  I loved the peculiar glue and paper smell of the post office and the dignified quiet of Portland's Forest Ave branch lobby after hours.  My father and I are estranged, so my romance with the mail was quite independent of the family connection and the dry mechanics of the organization.  I just really, really loved the magic and intimacy of tactile, suspenseful communication.

Over the years I've used the USPS more for business than pleasure, a fact that causes a twinge of nostalgia and regret when it crosses my mind.  Like many people, I pay most of my bills online and communicate by and large by email.  My uncle likes to taunt me that I'm contributing to the demise of the organization.  While the advent of email and online bill pay undoubtedly doesn't help, however, its effect on the business as a whole is almost certainly overstated.

A month or two ago, I ran across this article, a short piece well worth reading and mulling over at a time when there's a national spotlight on inequity and corporate advantage.  Seriously, have a read. It won't take a minute.

Fine. I'll assume that a lot of you won't bother.  The gist of it is that the USPS had its highest volume ever in 2005-2007, years when email and e-bills were already heavily in use.  When the financial shit hit the fan in 2008, the postal service suffered along with everyone else.  It always surprises me when people assume the internet spelled the end of the mail, too, because online orders are often delivered by the post office and the profit margin is huge -- first class letter rates are kept artificially low by higher costs on packages.  Even things delivered by UPS and Fed Ex often include return labels that go through the post office.

Now here's the shocker.  Remember how pension insecurity was a great huge deal when this recession began because companies were investing contributions in mortgage-backed securities?  Golly, those companies sure didn't do a very good job of protecting their employees, and they sure didn't have to take very much responsibility when people nearing retirement lost big, did they?  No. No, they didn't.  The USPS, on the other hand, was meeting its obligations to employee pensions and retiree healthcare with aplomb. (I'll vouch for it.  Since I filed the paperwork for my father's retirement he's required a lot of healthcare, all of which has been handled by his insurance). Seems like they deserved a pat on the back.

Instead, Congress slapped them in the face, for reasons that unclear since, generally speaking, Congress has shown itself to be radically unconcerned with whether or not people have health care:  They passed a bill requiring the postal service to fund its retiree healthcare 75 years in advance, to the tune of $5.5 billion a year.  They're also required to overpay pensions by $57-82 billion a year.  If this seems outrageous, that's because it is.  It's probably worth noting at this point that, contrary to popular belief, the USPS is not a government agency.  They're quasi-federal, which essentially means that while Congress gets to boss them around, they're required to fund themselves as though they're a private company.  They receive no taxpayer dollars.

The author of the linked article suggests a nefarious reason for heaping such punitive regulations on the post office without creating regulatory protections for private industry (or any other entity, including government agencies):  Public unions are a pain in the ass.  Kill the juggernaut National Association of Letter Carriers, and you strike a serious blow to their union brothers and sisters.

Here's why this is kind of a big deal:  It's very handy to pay bills online and send correspondence by email, but there are plenty of places in this country, believe it or not, that don't have internet access, whether because of geographical remoteness or income restrictions.  That those people can mail their bills and letters for less than $.50 is something like a miracle in a time when inflation has rendered the price of virtually everything unrecognizably bloated.  If you don't care about those people, ask yourself if you want to pay the Fed Ex envelope rate to mail your Christmas cards next year.

Oh, and that's another thing.  The obvious replacements for things that absolutely must be transported physically are Fed Ex and UPS.  That's great, but cost prohibitive for casual post.  And if you're one of those people who doesn't have internet access because you're way off in the boonies, well, forget it.  The two commercial couriers have no mandate to deliver to rural areas and often don't when the cost/benefit analysis deems it undesirable.  And my near-decade of experience dealing with the postal service, Fed Ex, and UPS tells me that the USPS loses far fewer items and is about a million times more diligent about not doing so than its commercial competitors.

It's also worth noting that there's a symbiosis among these three that would potentially jeopardize the solvency of the courier services if the postal service tanks altogether.   Guess who's the largest client of Fed Ex?  Yup, the USPS.  In the absence of its own airline, the service sends express mail on Fed Ex planes.  Losing its biggest customer can't possibly be good for that company.

The next time someone blithely cites email as the source of the malaise, fill them in.  Aside from my purely emotional attachment to handsome stationery and hand-written letters, there are real, significant reasons to fight for the postal service.  I'm writing a letter to my Congressional reps while I still can. (Zing!)


  1. so glad you took the time to write this. i too have had a long love for the post. getting anything in the mail beats an email hands down. i always get so excited! i mail and get packages all the time because of my photography business and, i too, have had many more lost packages with the competitors than with the usps.

    i read the article you linked and then posted it to facebook. ridiculously important. i had no idea about the pension and healthcare payment issue. why does everything seem just so insane? oh, cause it is. sigh. i hope we can fix this before it is un-fixable.

  2. And I'm so glad you shared the link!

    I've heard so many people lately trashing the postal service for this and that infraction, but let's be realistic: 47 cents for a first class item is an awfully big bang for your buck relative to actual damage and loss (as compared to perceived damage and loss).

    Because Bay Lines employees are also contract employees of the USPS, I've gotten a much better sense of how they operate. They may be the epitomy of humorless bureaucracy and super-redundant security measures, but that's exactly what you need to run an interstate business of the volume and complexity that the post office does with minimal interruptions.

    People need to lose the entitlement sensibility that one time something got delayed or damaged and now, in their minds, it's postal SOP, 'cause it isn't. I want to send them all anonymous love letters so they can remember the sheer joy of getting "real" mail.

  3. I resisted reading this for a while because while I know there is some seriously dumb stuff going on regarding the USPS now, I don't find the the issue all that interesting, even if it is important.

    But you convinced me. It is interesting AND important.