Plan to end Saturday mail delivery draws strong opposition

Saturday minus a visit from your letter carrier?

Don’t fret just yet — assuming that break in routine would even make much of a difference to most Americans. For seven out of 10, it wouldn’t, the U.S. Postal Service says, citing polls and its own market research.

But in addition to the shrugs — and a lot of howls — that met Wednesday’s announcement that Saturday mail delivery would cease as of August, there also was skepticism.

Will the post office really be able to make good on the threatened cut in service that would see regular mail delivery go to five days a week, while delivery of packages and medication would continue six days a week just as now?

“I’m not sure how they could do that without congressional approval,” Missouri’s junior U.S. senator, Republican Roy Blunt, told reporters after the news broke Wednesday.

Blunt was not alone in expressing doubt. While it’s an independent agency and gets no tax dollars for its day-to-day operations, the Postal Service remains subject to congressional control. Congress passed legislation in 1981 requiring mail delivery six days a week, and that 32-year-old mandate still stands.

However, postal officials think they have found a loophole that lets them out of that requirement, and not even critics of the attempt to end Saturday service can blame them for trying. Not when the post office lost $15.9 billion last budget year and with the dire prospect of greater losses ahead, absent severe cost-cutting or major reform.

“Our financial condition is urgent,” Postmaster General and CEO Patrick R. Donahoe said at a news conference.

The Saturday cutback would save $2 billion a year. While that’s only a smidgen compared to the huge budget hole the agency is in, those cuts are part of what the Postal Service called a “major restructuring” and “one of the actions needed to restore the financial health of the Postal Service.”

A far bigger help would be for Congress to relax the main constraints that pushed the mail service toward the edge of its own fiscal cliff. That’s the 2006 requirement that the post office beef up the amount of money set aside for future retiree health benefits, which along with related labor expenses accounted for all but $2.4 billion of last year’s deficit.

A bipartisan postal reform bill passed in the Senate last year might have helped, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.

“That would have put the Postal Service on the path to sound financial footing, protected rural post offices and provided strict criteria for the Postal Service to meet before eliminating six-day delivery,” she said. Instead, it died in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, “and this is the result of their inaction — an unnecessary loss for business, rural families and the principle of compromise,” she said.

Rep. Sam Graves, a Republican representing northwest Missouri, acknowledged that the mandated health costs were burdensome and need study, but stressed that cutting Saturday service would only further undermine the post office’s financial position. Graves more than opposes the service cut — he promised to introduce legislation preventing it.

“The USPS does need reform,” he said. “However, reducing core services is not a long-term plan. I worry that reducing services will lead to other reductions like closing rural post offices.”

Graves and others noted that many people, particularly in rural areas, still depend on the six-day delivery.

The president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Fredric Rolando, called the end of Saturday mail delivery “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers,” particularly businesses, rural communities and the elderly.

Especially seniors.

“It’s one of the fastest-growing populations as far as getting Internet savvy,” said Dan Goodman at the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging. “But there are a lot of seniors who prefer to get their communication through the mail.”

Protests also came from businesses — small ones that depend on six-day mail delivery for receiving payments and sending out bills and other correspondence, and large ones, like Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards Inc., which has been lobbying hard for the continuation of Saturday service.

“Just last year, 222 members of the House of Representatives signed on to a resolution supporting continued six-day mail service,” said Julie O’Dell, Hallmark’s public relations director. “We’ll have to wait and see how Congress responds to today’s announcement.”

O’Dell notes that the Postal Regulatory Commission believes that cost savings from eliminating Saturday letter deliveries would be less than what the Postal Service estimates, especially if parcel delivery continues.

Not delivering mail on Saturdays “will not induce customer loyalty and will negatively impact small towns and small businesses that depend on timely, affordable, reliable mail delivery,” the company said in a statement.

Fewer letters

But in an age when many Americans bank and pay their bills online, the number of letters and other mail being sent has declined accordingly.

No longer can it even be argued that senior citizens might have to wait on their Social Security checks were Saturday mail delivery curtailed. Nowadays, 93 percent of government benefit payments to individuals are direct deposit or are credited automatically to a government-issued debit card — and by next month, no paper checks will be sent out.

For years, postal officials have advocated for an end to both mail and package delivery on Saturday. But thanks to a 14 percent growth in package delivery over the last two years, the agency changed that stance and now only wants to cut delivery of letters, bills and other mail.

By promising to continue delivering packages on the weekend, such as prescription medications, postal officials feel support for ending six-day mail delivery would be even higher than reflected in previous polls.

Part of that uptick is attributable to agreements the Postal Service has with its longstanding competitors in the package business, said David Teegarden, president of National Association of Letter Carriers Local 30 in Kansas City.

FedEx and UPS transport packages over long distances and directly to their final destination, but not always. Often the Postal Service is paid to make the final delivery.

“Right now we deliver 25 percent of UPS last-mile delivery,” Teegarden said.

Ending Saturday delivery of regular mail would be a blow to his union. He’d lose about a sixth of his 500 members on the Missouri side of the metro area, Teegarden said.

But he and others say some postal customers will suffer, too, such as direct-mail companies that target ads for weekend delivery.

Though not all would care, said Rick Frantz, president of Direct Mail Strategies in North Kansas City.

“Direct mail,” he said, “you don’t want it to hit in businesses that are closed or people’s homes on Saturday when soccer moms don’t have time for it.”

The Postal Service said it made the announcement now, more than six months before the switch, to give residential and business customers time to plan and adjust.

Post offices now open on Saturday will continue to be open. Mail would be delivered to P.O. boxes on Saturday, also.

“The American public understands the financial challenges of the Postal Service and supports these steps as a responsible and reasonable approach to improving our financial situation,” Donahoe said in a prepared statement. “The Postal Service has a responsibility to take the steps necessary to return to long-term financial stability and ensure the continued affordability of the U.S. Mail.”