Facing Bankruptcy, US Postal Service Plans Cuts To Slow Delivery Of First Class Mail

Facing bankruptcy, the U.S. Postal Service is pushing ahead with unprecedented cuts to first-class mail next spring that will slow delivery and, for the first time in 40 years, eliminate the chance for stamped letters to arrive the next day.

A birthday card mailed first-class to Mom now could arrive a day or two late, if people don’t plan ahead. Photo: Dennis Schrader/Flickr

The estimated $3 billion in reductions, to be announced in broader detail later Monday, are part of a wide-ranging effort by the Postal Service to quickly trim costs and avert bankruptcy.

They could slow everything from check payments to Netflix’s DVDs-by-mail, add costs to mail-order prescription drugs, and threaten the existence of newspapers and time-sensitive magazines delivered by postal carrier to far-flung suburban and rural communities.

“It’s a potentially major change, but I don’t think consumers are focused on it and it won’t register until the service goes away,” said Jim Corridore, analyst with S&P Capital IQ, who tracks the shipping industry.

“Over time, to the extent the customer service experience gets worse, it will only increase the shift away from mail to alternatives. There’s almost nothing you can’t do online that you can do by mail.”

The Postal Service has already announced a 1-cent increase in first-class mail to 45 cents beginning Jan. 22.

The cuts, now being finalized, would close roughly 250 of the nearly 500 mail processing centers across the country as early as next March. Because the consolidations typically would lengthen the distance mail travels from post office to processing center, the agency also would lower delivery standards for first-class mail that have been in place since 1971.

Now first-class mail is supposed to be delivered to homes and businesses within the continental U.S. in one day to three days. That will lengthen to two days to three days, meaning mailers no longer could expect next-day delivery in surrounding communities. Periodicals could take between two days and nine days.

About 42 percent of first-class mail is now delivered the following day; another 27 percent arrives in two days, about 31 percent in three days and less than 1 percent in four to five days. Following the change next spring, about 51 percent of all first-class mail is expected to arrive in two days, with most of the remainder delivered in three days.

Expressing urgency to reduce costs, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in an interview that the agency has to act while waiting for Congress to grant it authority to reduce delivery to five days a week, raise stamp prices and reduce health care and other labor costs.

“We have a business model that is failing. You can’t continue to run red ink and not make changes,” Donahoe said. “We know our business, and we listen to our customers. Customers are looking for affordable and consistent mail service, and they do not want us to take tax money.”

The Postal Service, an independent agency of government, does not receive tax money, but is subject to congressional control on large aspects of its operations.

The Postal Service announced in September it was studying the possibility of closing the processing centers and published a notice in the Federal Register seeking comments. Within 30 days, the plan elicited nearly 4,400 public comments, mostly in opposition.

“It’s kind of a lifeline,” said William C. Snodgrass, who owns a USave Pharmacy in North Platte, Neb., referring to next-day first-class delivery. His store mails hundreds of prescriptions a week to residents in mostly rural areas of the state that lack local pharmacies. If first-class delivery were lengthened to three days and Saturday mail service also were suspended, a resident might not get a shipment mailed on Wednesday until the following week.

“A lot of people in these communities are 65 or 70 years old, and transportation is an issue for them,” said Snodgrass, who hasn’t decided whether he will have to switch to a private carrier such as UPS for one-day delivery. That would mean passing along higher shipping costs to customers. “It’s impossible for many of my customers to drive 100 miles, especially in the winter, to get the medications they need.”

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate committee that oversees the post office, believes the agency is taking the wrong approach. She says service cuts will only push more consumers to online bill payment or private carriers such as UPS or FedEx, leading to lower revenue in the future.

“Time and time again in the face of more red ink, the Postal Service puts forward ideas that could well accelerate its death spiral,” she said, urging passage of a bill that would refund nearly $7 billion the Postal Service overpaid into a federal retirement fund, encourage a restructuring of health benefits and reduce the agency’s annual payments into a retiree health account.

“The solution to the Postal Service’s financial crisis is not easy but must involve tackling more significant expenses that do not drive customers,” Collins said.

Ruth Goldway, chair of the Postal Regulatory Commission, said the planned cuts could test the limits of the Postal Service’s legal obligation to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality. “It will have substantial cost savings, but it really does have the potential to change what the postal service is and its role in providing fast and efficient delivery of mail,” she said. [via Huffington Post and The Washington Post]

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