Miriam Cervantes delivers mail in Los Angeles. The American Postal Workers… (Christina House, Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Postal Service announced plans to end Saturday mail delivery starting in August while maintaining six-day delivery of packages, a move that faces an unclear future in Congress.
Postal officials said the action was crucial to keeping the agency solvent. It would be the biggest change in mail delivery since the post office ended twice-daily service in the 1950s.
Although the Postal Service no longer receives taxpayer funds, it remains subject to oversight by Congress, which since 1983 has repeatedly passed measures requiring six-day delivery. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe's announcement appeared to be an effort to force action in Congress after comprehensive postal reform legislation stalled last year.
Postal officials say that as email has reduced the need for standard mail delivery and businesses have shifted to online billing and payment systems, they have been left with more workers and post offices than the volume of mail can support.
"Our financial condition is urgent," Donahoe said at a news conference, adding that ending letter deliveries on Saturdays would save $2 billion. "We need to operate with greater flexibility, so we can adapt quickly to the changing marketplace."
Americans "value the mail they receive, [but] they like to pay their bills online," Donahoe said.
Package delivery is not being curbed because the continued growth of online commerce has increased the agency's shipping business by 14% since 2010. That makes Saturday package delivery a potential moneymaker.
The postal service needs to find $20 billion in cost reductions and revenue increases to continue to operate, Donahoe said. Already, it has cut its workforce — one of the largest in the country — by 193,000 through attrition. It also has reduced costs by $15 billion by consolidating mail processing facilities, eliminating about 21,000 delivery routes and reducing hours at 9,000 postal facilities across the country.
"Even with these significant cost reductions, we still have a large budget gap to fill," Donahoe said.
The proposal announced Wednesday, which would take effect Aug. 5, aims to reduce the postal workforce by at least 20,000 more employees through reassignment and attrition. It would also significantly reduce overtime payments.
The announcement came with little advance notice to lawmakers, who were preparing to renew an effort to pass postal legislation this year.
Though many members of Congress insist they would have to approve the cutback, Donahoe told reporters that the agency believes it can move forward unilaterally. The current mandate for six-day delivery is part of a government funding measure that expires in late March.
"There's plenty of time in there so if there is some disagreement" with lawmakers, "we can get that resolved," he said.
The divide among lawmakers on the issue does not break cleanly along partisan lines. Lawmakers who represent rural areas, who tend to be Republicans, generally have opposed service cutbacks. So have those with strong backing from postal labor unions, mostly Democrats.
Last year, the Senate approved a bill that would have allowed the postal service to end Saturday delivery after a two-year period to evaluate the potential effects. Similar legislation in the House never came up for a vote.
The Obama administration had included a proposal for five-day mail delivery in its 2013 budget plan. White House officials, however, had said they supported that change only in concert with other reforms. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that officials hadn't yet studied the latest plan.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, expressed concern that the Postal Service's unilateral announcement could complicate his plans for overall reform.
But, he added, "It's hard to condemn the postmaster general for moving aggressively to do what he believes he can and must do to keep the lights on."
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a coauthor of the 2012 Senate bill, was more critical. She said that cutting service should "be the last resort, not the Postal Service's first choice," and said the announcement was "inconsistent with current law and threatens to further jeopardize its customer base."
Carper's counterpart in the House, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), applauded the postal service announcement as a "common-sense reform" that should draw bipartisan support.
Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), co-chairman of the House Rural Caucus, called on Congress to find a solution that would "not disproportionately impact rural communities."
The American Postal Workers Union also condemned the move.
"USPS executives cannot save the Postal Service by tearing it apart," said union President Cliff Guffey. "These across-the-board cutbacks will weaken the nation's mail system and put it on a path to privatization."