Technological advances rock Postal Service
Jan. 16, 2011 at 11 p.m.
Updated Jan. 15, 2011 at 7:16 p.m.
Rachel Flores has worked for the Postal Service for almost 30 years and does not foresee a day when mail carriers are a thing of the past.
"I believe people will always be mailing," said Flores, president of the local chapter of the American Postal Workers Union. "The post office will be around."
While the proposed changes in Victoria have Flores and other postal workers questioning the wisdom of those proposals, she remains steadfastly optimistic about the future of the Postal Service.
"To me, it's an institution. We provide a service that people still want and will always want," she said.
Technology is disrupting how the postal service operates, but the agency continues to tout its strength.
"The U.S. Postal Service is the only delivery service that reaches every address in the nation, 150 million residences, businesses and post office boxes," said Sam Bolen, public information officer for the Postal Service's Rio Grande District that includes Victoria.
Named the Most Trusted Government Agency five consecutive years and the sixth Most Trusted Business in the nation by the Ponemon Institute, if the Postal Service was a private sector company, it would rank 28th in the 2009 Fortune 500, noted Bolen.
But the problems are undeniable, most notably decreases in the volume of first-class mail, the Postal Service's biggest moneymaker.
Mail volume is projected to fall from 177 billion pieces in 2009 to 150 billion in 2020, a 37 percent decline in first-class mail alone. The percentage of revenue contributed by first-class mail will plummet from 51 to about 35 in 2020, according to a news release from the Postal Service.
"Lifestyles and ways of doing business have changed dramatically in the last 40 years, but some of the laws that govern the Postal Service have not. These laws need to be modernized to reflect today's economic and business challenges and the dramatic impact the Internet has had on American life," Postmaster General John E. Potter said in March.
Those legislative restrictions include limiting the postal service's ability to close post offices and requirements for six-day delivery.
A 2010 General Accounting Office report confirms Potter's concerns about Internet use stating that the recession has accelerated "shifts to electronic communications and payments."
Financial woes can be found in other areas of the Postal Service, too, including its funding of employee health care and payment into retiree health benefits.
Funding of retiree health benefits cost the Postal Service $5.5 billion in 2010.
"They are attributing a lot of the losses to the fact that they overpaid for our health care," Flores said. "If that is the case, that would make a big difference in the overall deficit."
"The crisis we're facing gives us an historic opportunity to make changes that will lay the foundation for a leaner, more market responsive Postal Service that can thrive far into the future," Potter said, stressing that there is no one single answer or quick fix to the crisis.
Among other possible solutions, the 2010 Postal Service business plan includes modernizing "customer access by providing services at locations that are more convenient to customers, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, retail centers and office supply stores."
The GAO report wasn't optimistic.
"Ultimately, Congress may want to consider changing USPS's ownership structure," the report summarized.
"As communications and the use of the mail evolve, Congress will need to revisit policy issues related to USPS, the services it provides and how to best position the organization for the future.
"The current crisis presents the opportunity to act and position this important American institution for the future. If no action is taken, the risk of USPS's insolvency and the need for a bailout by taxpayers and the U.S. Treasury increases."
Flores said the union is adamant about not receiving tax money. The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.
"That's not even an option for us. We won't be asking for any tax money," said Flores.
Another proposal on the table to help cut expenses is five-day delivery.
Flores said five-day delivery is not a viable solution.
"Six days is what we do," she said.
The Postal Service has cut personnel: 75 million work hours were eliminated nationally in 2010, including locally.
Flores remembers a time when Victoria had four shifts; it's now down to two.
"I've seen a lot of change. We are working with what we have," she said. "We just have to work smarter."
Late last year, in remarks to a Senate governmental affairs committee hearing, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, painted a bleak picture of the Postal Service's future.
"During next year's holiday shopping and mailing season, the Postal Service may not have the resources necessary to open its doors," Carper said.
He is sponsoring legislation, the Postal Operations Sustainment and Transformation Act, intended to help the Postal Service earn more money.
The bill includes the following provisions: easing postal employee pension and retiree health costs; addressing postal employee wages and benefits; allowing partnerships with state and local governments; and giving the Postal Service leeway to close post offices, market certain nonpostal items and eliminate Saturday delivery.
The sobering fact is the Postal Service lost $8.6 billion in 2010.
That is a financial reality.
The GAO recommended, "Congress should consider providing financial relief, such as revising USPS retiree health benefit funding and requiring any binding arbitration to take USPS's financial condition into account. At the same time, Congress should consider setting up a panel of experts to develop proposals for broader legislative and operational reform."
The Postmaster General believes changes can save the Postal Service.
"If given the flexibility to respond to an evolving marketplace, the Postal Service will continue to be an integral part of the fabric of American life," Potter said.
For Flores and hundreds of thousands of other postal workers, optimism remains high.
"The Postal Service has always come through," said Flores, a distribution clerk who also works the customer service window and does a little of everything at the James Moody Post Office on Sam Houston Drive. "This is not the first time we've faced difficult times. The Postal Service is here to stay. I hate to think that people would give up on us."