We Deliver – More Slowly – For You

First-class mail is likely the next casualty as the United States Postal Service (USPS) looks for ways to stave off bankruptcy. The USPS is planning to shutter 252 mail processing centers nationally and slow first-class delivery as soon as spring, citing steadily declining mail volume.

According to USPS vice president David Williams, the agency wants to effectively eliminate the likelihood that stamped letters will arrive at their destination the next day.  Williams says the postal service is not “writing off first class mail”; rather, it must respond to changing market realities in which people are turning more to the Internet for email communications and bill payment.  After peaking in 2006, first-class mail volume is now at 78 million.  It is projected to drop by approximately 50 percent by 2020.

The estimated $3 billion in reductions are part of a wide-ranging effort by the cash-strapped USPS to cut costs without receiving any help from Congress.  Although the changes would provide short-term relief, they ultimately could prove counterproductive by moving more business onto the Internet.  The move has the potential to slow everything from check payments to Netflix’s DVDs-by-mail, add costs to mail-order prescription drugs, and threaten the existence of newspapers and time-sensitive magazines.

Ideally, first-class mail would be delivered in two to three days, a change from the current one to three days in the 48 contiguous United States.  But, the postal service said mailers “who properly prepare and enter mail at the processing facility prior to the day’s critical entry time” could have their mail delivered the following delivery day.”  Magazine delivery could take two to nine days.

“It’s a potentially major change, but I don’t think consumers are focused on it and it won’t register until the service goes away,” said Jim Corridore, an analyst with S&P Capital IQ, who tracks the shipping industry.  “Over time, to the extent the customer service experience gets worse, it will only increase the shift away from mail to alternatives.  There’s almost nothing you can’t do online that you can do by mail.”

The post office already has announced a penny increase in first-class mail to 45 cents, whch goes into effect on January 22.  “We have a business model that is failing.  You can’t continue to run red ink and not make changes,” said Patrick Donahoe, Postmaster General.  “We know our business, and we listen to our customers. Customers are looking for affordable and consistent mail service, and they do not want us to take tax money.”

According to Donahoe, “We are in a deep financial crisis today because we have a business model that is tied to the past.  We are expected to operate like a business, but we do not have the flexibility to do so.  Our business model is fundamentally inflexible.  It prevents the postal service from solving problems and being effective in the way a business would.”

Senator Susan Collins, (R-ME), the ranking Republican of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was unhappy with the USPS’ plans.  “Time and time again in the face of more red ink, the Postal Service puts forward ideas that could well accelerate its death spiral,” Collins said.  “Closing thousands of rural post offices, eliminating Saturday delivery, and slowing first-class mail delivery could harm many businesses and their customers.”

Writing in the Washington Post’s Federal Eye column, Ed O’Keefe commiserates with postal customers, but offers no quick fixes. “And what about those customers who rely on first-class mail to get letters delivered the next day?  Donahoe and other officials hope those customers will switch to Priority or Express Mail, a more expensive option that can guarantee deliveries by a certain date.”

If the plan is approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission, the changes have the potential to save about $3 billion, and allow the Postal Service to cut approximately 28,000 jobs.

According to USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer, the changes allow increased time between deliveries, clearing the way to close or consolidate mail processing centers across the country.  “It’s no longer a challenge of growth — it’s a challenge of staying ahead of the cost curve,” Partenheimer said.  “The fact of the matter is, our network is too big.”

Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, said the changes will hurt communities and take the Postal Service in the wrong direction.  “They should be trying to speed up and modernize the mail, not slow it down and make it less relevant in the digital age,” she said.

Davidow said the retirement payment mandate and overpayment into the Postal Service’s pension accounts are the main culprits.  She believes that USPS leadership should focus on pressuring Congress to fix them instead of cutting service and jobs.  “Addressing those two things would go a very long way toward resolving the crisis and giving the Postal Service the breathing room and the capital it needs to modernize and to be relevant in the digital age,” Davidow said.

The postmaster general offered his opinion on that.  “The American public pays bills online,” Donahoe concluded.  “We can’t sit back for another five, or six, or 10 years and wait for these changes.”