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A love letter: The U.S. Postal Service delivers under tough conditions

“Going postal” should be considered a good thing. Why the USPS gets a very bad rap.
A love letter to ... the U.S. Postal Service?

Physically getting something from here to there inexpensively and efficiently despite the weather, distance, snarling dogs and whatever other obstacles may get in the way?

"Going postal" should be considered a great thing.

If we could all go postal, Uber wouldn't have a chance.

The United States Postal Service gets a very bad rap.

It is better at what it does than most of us, operating under conditions and constraints that would have most of us, most businesses and most institutions waving a white flag.

Our mail delivery system is a miracle, yet too many of us take it for granted. Worse, it is so underappreciated by some that they see it as superfluous and unnecessary in a pay-online, email and digital newspaper world.

There's no question the Postal Service has to change. The politicians who oversee it must allow it to change. It does what no one else can or will do. Business has taken a hit, but efficiency is at an all-time high.

It's an institution that does the impossible daily, and yet postal workers are a put-upon class, too often used as punch lines. Know-it-all Cliff Clavin on "Cheers" was a postal worker. So was Newman on "Seinfeld."

They are hardly depicted as heroic figures. But they're the ones out there every day, no matter how hot or cold, in dry weather and wet, getting it done.

Too often there's a tendency to think of mail delivery like a utility. What it does is noted only when things go awry, a wait is too long, a connection is missed. But it's very much a humancentric business despite increasing automation and outsize scale.

Last year, the U.S. Postal Service processed and delivered 155.4 billion letters, packages, catalogs, magazines and such — mailpieces, in the parlance — to 153.9 million delivery points. Just last year, 971,543 delivery routes were added.

Its expansive network is so unmatched and unmatchable that UPS and FedEx annually must rely on the Postal Service to deliver more than 470 million of their ground packages. The USPS simply goes places not commercially viable for others to go.

The Postal Service employs more than 485,000 full-time employees and nearly 130,000 more on a part-time basis. Its fleet of vehicles numbers more than 210,000, and they cover roughly 4 million miles daily. Around 7,500 or so letter carriers, meanwhile, travel each day only by foot.

Yet the cost of mailing a first-class letter anywhere in the United States is still just 49 cents, whether it's a thank you note sent up the block or a love letter destined for the farthest reaches of Alaska.

Unlike FedEx and UPS, the Postal Service charges the same to deliver mail on Saturday as any other day and, in some places for certain mailpieces, Sunday deliveries can be arranged.

For some, the Postal Service also serves as a bank of sorts. It issued 97 million money orders last year.

No question the Postal Service is under siege from the same technological, economic and competitive forces upending every other long-standing business, but it also operates under handicaps nothing else does or should.

The U.S. Postal Service is not a federal agency, and tax dollars do not pay for its operation. It must support itself. Nonetheless, it answers to and in effect is managed by Congress.

Congress cannot even manage itself.

The Postal Service loses money because of constraints and requirements placed on it by Congress, which then can decry its inefficiency and make things even more difficult.

Should the Postal Service have more flexibility in its pricing? Should a letter mailed from La Salle Street to Lake Forest cost the same as one sent from sea to shining sea and beyond? Should the Postal Service have more control over its own infrastructure and how its workforce is managed?

If privately operated or simply freed from getting beat up in the political arena, the USPS would enjoy the latitude of rivals UPS and FedEx, which compete with the Postal Service in what should be the most profitable segments of its business. But congressional interference goes beyond what USPS is allowed to charge for a stamp and whether it must continue Saturday deliveries.

Congress decided in 2006 that the Postal Service would have to prepay 75 years' worth of future-retiree health benefits over the next 10 years, something no federal agency must do.

A private business would spread this sort of obligation over a span four times as long. But as Esquire's Jesse Lichtenstein noted two years ago in his own loving paean to the USPS: "Congress figured out that since health-care payments are counted as general government revenue, it could use them to prop up its own books."

Things were going well for the Postal Service at the time, and billions of dollars per year for its future pensioners were billions of dollars Congress wouldn't have to cut from its spending, Lichtenstein wrote.

When the economy took a nose dive, however, first-class mail dropped off, taking revenues with it. By 2012, he noted, future health care payments would account for 70 percent of the USPS' $15.9 billion loss.

It's been 240 years since Benjamin Franklin was named the nation's first postmaster general. The 74th and first woman, Megan Brennan, takes command Feb. 1.

Brennan's predecessor, Patrick Donahoe, said earlier this month in something of a valedictory speech at the National Press Club that he believed the USPS can operate profitably far into the future and adapt, but not with its current business model. He cited "irrational mandates and legislative requirements" from Congress and resistance from the labor union.

"Technology is driving dramatic changes in delivery services," Donahoe said. "Just look at how Amazon is offering one-hour delivery in New York City. The Postal Service needs the flexibility to be a part of those changes, and more importantly, to shape those changes."

Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, issued a statement that same day blasting Donahoe's efforts to manage costs, citing USPS operating profits totaling $2 billion over the last two years. Dimondstein said diminished delivery standards — and expectations — will do irreparable damage.

Whether the messages from either Donahoe or Dimondstein reached their intended recipients is uncertain.

If only they just could have put them in the mail.

philrosenthal@tribpub.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune
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