“Oh, I’m sorry dear,” says an elderly woman after shaking out her black umbrella inside the post office in Albertson, N.Y., a hamlet in Nassau County. Behind the counter, a postal clerk gestures through the colorless plastic drapes that serve as a measure of protection against the invisible virus so easily spread by COVID-19.
“No, ma’am…not the umbrella—make sure you put on your mask,” said the clerk, pointing to her own mask. “I don’t want you to get sick.”
“Oh, thank you miss,” says the elderly woman. “I always forget.”
“Can I get you anything else?” asks the clerk, once the transaction is complete. “Stamps, a book of stamps. The ones with the American flag, please,” the woman replies, after a brief pause.
Then, unprompted, she says, “My husband was a letter carrier for 32 years. Thank goodness for his pension, I don’t know what I would do….” With gloved hands, the clerk gives her the stamps and wishes her customer a “safe” day.
The lady turns and waves to the clerk with her umbrella and says, “I really hope the president doesn’t close you down, I don’t know what I would do.”
During a time in which the postal service has never been more essential, workers have never been in more physical danger or their financial future as tenuous.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed postal carriers, mail clerks, and craftsmen to acute threat levels while performing their assigned duties. Across the country, thousands of postal workers report to work each day with the knowledge that the virus can remain for hours on the paper and cardboard that comprises most mail.
Threat of disease is not the only hazard facing the nation’s 630,000 postal workers. They also confront an uncertain employment future. In late March, as the federal government struggled to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump threatened to veto a version of the $2.2. trillion bipartisan CARES Act stimulus package that included a $13 billion grant to the USPS. Though lawmakers initially agreed to the $ 13 billion direct payment, the effort was blocked by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin who told them that the Post Office could have a loan or nothing. By the time the bill made it out of the GOP-controlled Senate, the emergency payment had been excised and was supplanted by a $10 billion loan instead. The CARES Act that passed at the end of March, by comparison, included $29 billion for private passenger airlines and cargo carriers.
Supporters of the Post Office took to social media to express dismay at the timing and harsh provisions included in the legislation, as well as to commend the Post Office, noting that the agency delivers 48 percent of the nation’s mail to 160 million homes, a volume that UPS, FedEx, and Walmart combined do not equal. They noted, too, that the Post Office operates on funding from postage and postal products and receives no taxpayer dollars.
Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution explicitly authorized the establishment of public post offices. And according to a 2019 Gallup poll, 74 percent of Americans believe the USPS provides excellent service, the highest approval rating of all federal agencies.
The White House, though. has argued that the Post Office is mismanaged and should, for example, charge higher rates from Amazon, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post, another frequent Trump target. The president claims that Amazon deliveries lose money for the USPS, though according to Politifact these products turn a modest profit.
But there is more to the story than the Amazon dispute. USPS supporters consider recent Trump administration moves against the postal service as just the latest offensive in a decades-long Republican campaign to destroy the agency.
“President Donald Trump revealed a hostility towards the Post Office when he recently referred to it ‘as a joke,’ but it merges with a long-standing Republican embrace of both postal privatization and the trope that USPS is a mismanaged business,” said Phillip Rubio, a professor of history at North Carolina A and T University, a former letter carrier, and the author of Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service.
“The Trump administration is now playing a costly game of chicken to get what it sought long before the current crisis: drastic service and facilities cuts, more non-career labor and outsourcing, and a rollback of employee rights and benefits,” Rubio said. “If it succeeds, we’ll all be the poorer for it.”
“The Post Office has historically provided an avenue toward middle-class stability for all Americans,” he said.
By the time the final stimulus bill passed through the GOP-controlled Senate, the payment to the USPS was excised and a $10 billion borrowing cap was instituted. The loan may be perceived by some as a lifeline for an essential service, but USPS advocates insist that it serves as an albatross to an agency already saddled with debt due to onerous conditions initially established by the Republican-sponsored Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. With the blessing of the George W. Bush White House, that legislation mandated the unique requirement that the postal service pre-fund retirement benefits for 50 years in advance, which supporters consider an unrealistic burden.
The Post Office sustained an $8 billion loss in 2019. It is projected to lose $2 billion per month during the pandemic and will run out of operational funding by September 30, according to the Post Office website. “President Trump could cripple the nation’s mail by blocking aid, forcing the Post Office to prioritize which vendors to pay and what services to curtail,” said Rubio.
The USPS has estimated that it needs $89 billion to offset declining revenue and pay down existing debt to remain solvent for the foreseeable future or risk disintegration. The loss of 630,000 government jobs—of which veterans comprise 15 percent and minorities and women account for 37 percent—would be a blow to what remains of the middle class across the demographic spectrum.
Scott Hoffman, president of American Postal Workers Union Local 100 Boston Metro, regards the recent $10 billion loan as designed to put the Post Office in a permanent state of distress. “It’s like throwing a rock to a drowning man,” he said.
Hoffman says he has seen working conditions steadily decline since the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. “There is less respect for bargaining workers and this legislation only served to increased profits from our own executives,” he said. “Prior to 2006, the postmaster could not earn a higher annual salary than the vice president. But now they are paid like a corporate CEO,” he said.
Hoffman views the latest GOP offensive as particularly unseemly given that the post office has been continuously operating to serve the public during the pandemic. At least two members of Local 100 have died due to COVID-19-related causes. Hoffman has visited almost every postal site that has experienced a worker test positive. “They reported to work despite the fear and anxiety because they felt a sense of duty and knew the Post Office had to keep going.”
It is true of course that life without the Post Office would be different in many ways. Allies of the USPS note that many Americans rely on the postal service for delivery of prescription medicine, essential equipment, and legal documents, among other items. Hoffman argues that if the USPS went away, the cost of postage would rise and pricing would be at the full discretion of a corporate entity that is primarily concerned with stockholders, not the public.
“We deliver more in one day than FedEx does in a whole year. Our infrastructure is unmatched and established over time. We can reach every resident, every day, six days a week, or whenever called upon,” said Hoffman.