As mail volumes plummet, unions push Congress for relief

(file photo)

Perry Schmidt is used to delivering between 1,200 and 1,300 pieces of mail along his route each day. Now, the St. Paul letter carrier is delivering between 400 and 600.

He’s not alone. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country, the volume of mail handled by the U.S. Postal Service cratered, prompting the agency to warn Congress it will run out of cash sometime this summer.

“It’s hard to say if we’re ever going to recover from this,” said Schmidt, a member of Branch 28 of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC).

But postal unions aren’t going down without a fight. They have launched an all-out lobbying campaign (click here to sign their petition to Congress), warning supporters that, unless the USPS receives a lifeline in the next COVID-19 stimulus bill, critical public services could disappear. Among them:

Prescription delivery. The Postal Service delivers about hundreds of millions of prescriptions to American households each year. In a pandemic, with people trying to limit their exposure to public places, that service is vital.

“As more and more people are at home, they have to get their prescriptions, and they have to get them on time,” said Todd Elkerton, president of the American Postal Workers Union’s St. Paul local. “That’s a big deal.”

Voting by mail. Many states, including Minnesota, are considering measures to allow voting by mail as a result of the pandemic. That won’t be possible if the agency goes under.

Rural service. President Trump has made no secret of his preference for privatizing the Postal Service, going so far as to convene a task force to make recommendations on the subject. That would be disastrous for many remote and rural areas of the country.

USPS typically delivers 470 million pieces of mail each day to all 159 million addresses in the country. Private companies likely would deliver only where they can turn a profit.

“We’re the lifeblood of these small communities,” Elkerton said. “Without a post office, there’s really not a town in some of these areas.”

In addition to providing temporary relief to the USPS, federal lawmaker should repeal the law requiring the agency to prefund its retirees’ health benefits 75 years in advance.

The prefunding mandate was a poison pill that privatization advocates successfully attached to a bigger spending bill in 2006, designed to make the Postal Service appear bankrupt. But no other public or private employer is subject to a prefunding requirement of the kind.

“If you took off the prefunding mandate, it would look like we were actually making money,” Elkerton said. “But it’s a hard thing to explain in sound bites. It’s hard to get that point across.”

Of course, their jobs aren’t the only thing USPS workers have to worry about right now. As essential workers during the pandemic, they risk coming into contact with the novel coronavirus every day.

Anxiety spread throughout the agency after two USPS workers from the same station in New York died after contracting COVID-19.

So far, Minnesota is faring better. At of last week, among 13,000 postal employees in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, which make up the agency’s Northland region, just four had tested positive for the virus, Elkerton said. Minnesota’s USPS workers had seen just one positive case.

“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety, but really we’ve kind of beaten the odds here,” he said.

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