The U.S. Postal Service Needs Help Now: ‘The Situation Is Absolutely Dire’

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As Americans shelter in place across the country, the U.S. Postal Service has assumed special importance in their lives. Postal workers deliver medicines and toiletries; in states that allow voting by mail, they help democracy function. But the economic crisis created by the novel coronavirus has dealt a serious blow to the USPS, and the Trump administration isn’t prepared to help. The recent stimulus package omitted any assistance for the USPS, which employs over 600,000 people. “We told them very clearly that the president was not going to sign the bill if [money for the Postal Service] was in it,” an anonymous White House aide told the Washington Post. “I don’t know if we used the V-bomb, but the president was not going to sign it, and we told them that.”

Though the pandemic has created an acute crisis for the USPS, the postal service has been vulnerable for a long time. To conservatives, it’s an obstacle in the path to small government, and some support its full privatization. A 2006 law requiring the postal service to fund retirement health benefits ahead of time created further financial strain. The Trump White House may believe it has a rare opportunity before it to allow the USPS to die. That would be a disaster for workers, and for the millions of Americans who rely on the postal service.

The American Postal Workers Union or APWU, represents around 200,000 postal service workers, and is urging Congress to include a bailout of the USPS in its next stimulus package. The union’s president, Mark Dimondstein, spoke to Intelligencer by phone about the extent of the postal service’s woes, as well as the right wing’s obsession with privatizing it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How dire is the financial situation right now?

First, the post office is a non-taxpayer-funded public institution and they derive their revenue strictly from postal postage and postal services. There’s no other revenue coming from any other way. And they have an essential mission, really amplified by this crisis, to serve everybody in the country, no matter who we are and where we live. It’s called the universal service obligation. They deliver to 160 million addresses, six days a week, sometimes seven now, plus the process that gets mail to and from those addresses.

The very pandemic that’s reminding the public that postal workers are essential workers, getting medicines to homes as well as packages and so on, is causing a severe economic impact on the postal service itself. Package revenue is picking up because some people are ordering from home, but how long that lasts is subject to discretionary spending, and people have massive unemployment. This in no way makes up for the loss of advertising mail and other sorts of mail. The revenue will likely drop 40 to 50 percent. Some of these estimates are guesstimates, but they’re guesstimates based on what’s already happening. The situation is absolutely dire. The post office will likely run out of money sometime between July and September of this year. If they run out of money, then the people lose the service.

And financial assistance has not been forthcoming from the government.

It has not. We want to make it clear to people that the post office is asking for relief strictly around the impact of the COVID pandemic, and not other issues, like pre-funding retiree benefits and changing mail habits. But in the last big incentive package, the CARES Act, the House had a proposal for $25 billion for the post office. Mind you, they knew that $500 billion was used to help financially stressed private companies. There was bipartisan support for some serious money, which probably wasn’t enough, and some recognition that this impact is not the fault of the post office.

That financial relief was stopped cold by Goldman Sachs, Wall Street, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. And if you follow some of President Trump’s comments in these briefings, he’s chosen to attack the post office a number of times saying, you know, the woes are because they didn’t charge Amazon enough, which is all just absurd. Mnuchin’s script to Congress was that if the post office is in there, there will be no incentive package. We need for Congress to say to Mnuchin, if the postal service is not in there, then there will be no incentive packages, period, until it is. What we need now is for Congress to flip the script.

And the people of this country are behind the post office. There was a Pew poll a couple of days ago that showed a 91 percent favorable rating for this public entity. So this is not a partisan issue. While we often take the post office for granted, it’s much more appreciated in this moment.

Do you have updated figures on how many of your members have become ill or passed away from probable COVID?

The mayor of New York just did a good thing in the tragedy. He upped the numbers to reflect a more honest assessment of how many people have died from this. I’m only raising that because the postal figures probably are deflated because the official figures are as well. But we know of 33 postal workers of all different crafts, not just staff members but also some managers, who have died. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of positive cases, hundreds and hundreds of presumptive cases, and thousands of people that are quarantined because they work in that same area with people who were tested positive.

New York City is obviously a hot spot. But the pandemic is spreading outside major urban centers to affect rural communities, where the postal service has unique importance. If financial assistance isn’t made available to the postal service, what will the impact be on rural people?

I very much appreciate that question. The post office has a special place in many communities from the inner cities all the way to the most remote outpost. But in rural America, it’s often the heartbeat of the town. And if e-commerce is going to work for everybody, you have to have a national infrastructure that has to go to every address. If you’re a private company, you can have surcharges if you’re going to more of a rural area. You don’t have to go where you don’t want to go.

Part of the beauty of the post office, again, is the universal service obligation, to every address, at uniform rates. It’s the same cost to send a package priority mail from New York City to Philadelphia, or New York City to Alaska or to a rural community in Vermont, where my sister lives. Private companies don’t do that because it’s about the bottom dollar. The post office is about public service. But some of the areas these big, private companies would put surcharges on because they say it costs more to go to, some of them are also deeply urban areas, which may not have as much wherewithal economically. So people would be hurt everywhere, and rural America would be deeply, deeply affected.

You singled out Mnuchin earlier. Do you think that he and other conservatives view this crisis as an opportunity to act on an older agenda to privatize the postal service?

That’s 100 percent right. The Office of Management Budget published a report in June 2018, and it was clear as a bell. It said this is our opportunity to sell the post office to private corporations. In that report, they say the process has to have a phase one and a phase two. Phase one was, for lack of a better term, setting it up. Make it more profitable by cutting service, raising prices, and cutting workers’ benefits.

So fast-forward to December 2018. A report by the Presidential Postal Task Force, which was headed by Mnuchin himself, questioned the universal service standard of having everybody’s address. You can imagine what that would do to rural America. It also talked about doing away with collective bargaining rights of workers, which would lower the benefits and wages of workers. And it talked about artificially raising prices, which is what private companies like UPS want, because the postal service provides the low-cost anchor in this huge mailing industry.

Then, of course, you have the Heritage Foundation, which has for decades had this constant chorus of postal privatization — selling it off and helping the stock market. And of course the Heritage Foundation has a huge influence on this administration. So the agenda is there. But it’s completely at odds with both the sentiments and the needs of the people of this country.

Working for the postal service has historically been a path to middle-class life for black Americans in particular. Do you think that factors into the right wing’s hostility toward the postal service?

You know, that’s an interesting question. It might be. How many companies truly have equal pay for equal work, in terms of African-Americans, Latinos, and women? Under our collective bargaining agreements and some of the civil-service hiring policies, we really do have decent jobs and equal opportunity for higher wages and benefits. From the 1960s on — and I’m sure the civil-rights movement played a role in this — the postal service has been a real source of jobs for the black community, a real asset to the black community in this country.

And now they’re going to try to do away with this wonderful institution that sustains equal pay for equal work, despite what it’s meant to the black community, what it’s meant to women, and what it’s meant to veterans.

Are there policy changes that elected officials could enact to make the postal service less vulnerable to crises like the pandemic?

The post office has a break-even process. They’re not there to pack away money for a rainy day. It was never set up that way. And in the best of times, it’d be almost impossible to lose half of your revenue and be able to continue a needed service. Are there things they can do to improve? Absolutely. We’re big proponents of the post office providing more financial services as a counter to predatory payday lending. There’s a lot of things the post office can do in terms of licensing, and serving some state functions in remote areas. And all of that would bring revenue.

I think there are a lot of opportunities. But we believe in low-cost postal services. We’re glad that postal rates are reasonable, that people have access to letters, to packages, and can put 55 cents on a letter and send it to a loved one on the other side of the country as well as the other side of the street.

A final question before we go. Your union supports Medicare for All and belongs to the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. Why do you support Medicare for All, and how might the pandemic influence your advocacy for it going forward?

Our union believes in a more just society, as well as a more just workplace. It’s part of our national constitution, part of our DNA. There’s nothing more fundamental for the well-being of people than to have access to health care. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Let me give you an example in this moment, about how important society-based health care is versus employer-based health care. Our people have good health care. And we’re still paying tons of money and getting less year after year after year. Now look at what’s happened in this crisis. Millions and millions of workers who are in unions, including many who aren’t in unions, that had employer-based health care lost it overnight. It is not society-based. There’s no stability now. People have to make a choice between paying rent and seeing a doctor during this crisis.

The other part of it is, if we don’t have a collective approach to each other, we all suffer. Because if the person standing in line with us at the grocery store in a pandemic doesn’t have health care and they’re sick, we’re going to be sicker. And so I think that one of the lessons we learned from this tragedy is that we truly have to be our brother’s keeper. And what better way to make sure that health care is not just based on profit, but that it’s there for everybody?

The Post Office Is Running Out of Money, Union Says