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USPS had early origins in Pennsylvania

A letter carrier in Cabot in the early 20th century. Submitted photo

While the unofficial motto of United States Postal Service is “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” the USPS has been battered in recent years.

The 2020 COVID pandemic, an onerous financial burden placed on the USPS by Congress, an increased volume of packages sparked by e-commerce and controversial cost-cutting measures have all threatened the USPS mission.

They are just the latest in a series of challenges to the institution founded before the United States itself.

Expanding service

The Founding Fathers established a postal service in 1775 and appointed Ben Franklin its first postmaster before the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776.

In his book, “First Class: The U.S. Postal Service, Democracy, and the Corporate Threat,” author Christopher Shaw writes from the beginning George Washington, who laid out some of the first post roads using his skills as a surveyor “envisioned a postal system that united the widely dispersed citizens of a fledgling nation and sustained their pioneering attempt at republican government.”

“During the early years of the republic, the only tangible evidence for many Americans that the national government existed at all was the U.S. Mail,” writes Shaw.

As the country moved westward, the U.S. Mail moved with it, creating post roads and helping subsidize stage coach lines by paying them to carry the mail to far-flung post offices.

The old Butler post office, shown in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Submitted photo

Winifred Gallagher in her history “How the Post Office Created America” said the Post Office was instrumental in the development of the railroads, whose trains carried mail cars where postal clerks sorted the letters en route to the mail’s final destinations.

Gallagher credits the Post Office with nurturing the nation’s fledgling aviation industry by contracting mail to be moved by airplane. “By the late 1920s,” Gallagher wrote, “the commercial aviation industry, which had been almost entirely sustained by postal subsidies, was poised to take flight on its own.”

Through wars, recessions and depressions, the mail continued to get through. However, in 1970 in response to a wildcat strike by New York post office employees, writes Gallagher, President Richard Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act, which removed the Post Office as a Cabinet post, renamed it the U.S. Postal Service and fashioned it as an “independent establishment of the executive branch,” a government-business hybrid run by a board of governors nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

As the USPS itself notes, “The Postal Service’s status is unique. It is an independent agency of the executive branch, yet it is required to operate like a business. It generally does not receive tax revenues to support its operations and must compete for customers.”

As of 2022, according to the USPS, the service had $78.8 billion in operating revenue, 516,750 career employees, 118,600 non-career employees, and 33,641 USPS managed post offices and contract offices. Total mail volume in 2022 was 127.3 billion, including 12.9 billion pieces of First Class mail.

Still, the USPS has faced — and continues to face — financial challenges. In 2006 a congressional mandate compelled the USPS to pre-fund the next 75 years of retiree benefits in one decade, something that cost the USPS $5.5 billion annually.

This may have been the cause for cause for Postmaster Louis DeJoy’s controversial cost-cutting measures in 2020. According to Shaw’s book, DeJoy’s plan, which included cutting work hours and reducing the number of trips trucks could make to processing centers, left mail waiting to be sorted and delivered.

Coming in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and before the upcoming 2020 presidential election with a growing number of states promoting mail-in ballots as an alternative to in-person voting, DeJoy’s plans caused an uproar.

The Chicora post office shown in 1908. Submitted photo
Postal Reform Act

In response, the Postal Reform Act of 2022 removed the USPS’ obligation to fund retiree benefits ahead of time, said Brian Thompson, business agent for Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey for the National Association of Letter Carriers, the largest of four unions representing postal workers with 293,000 members.

Thompson started out as a non-career mail carrier in East Liverpool, Ohio, then served as a non-career clerk in New Castle from 1994 to 1997 before being hired as a part-time flexible clerk at the Butler post office in 1997. After six months, he went to the New Castle post office as a part-time flexible clerk from 1998 to 2004 before becoming a mail carrier from 2004 to 2016 then becoming leader of the NALC’s Branch 22, covering an area from New Castle to Meadville to Phillipsburg. In 2020 he became business agent and now works outside of Philadelphia.

He oversees 58 branches and 19,000 workers and retirees, aids branches, deals with grievances that can’t be solved on a local level, handles with workers’ compensation cases and supervises training.

The Postal Reform Act of 2022 eased USPS’ immediate problems. Before that, Thompson noted, the USPS was the only entity, government agency or private business, that had to fund retirees benefits ahead of time. The $5.5 billion was taken annually from the USPS budget, money could have funded operations, improvements and innovations.

Thompson said the reform act also ordered that beginning in January 2025 future postal retirees must sign up for Medicare Part B and no longer have the option of remaining in the federal employee health plan after retirement.

The USPS, itself, noted the reform bill includes language that requires the Postal Service to continue to deliver mail and packages six days a week. Six-day mail delivery had been the norm for decades, and this policy has had overwhelming bipartisan support. However, since 1983, the mandate to deliver mail six days a week had to be renewed annually in the appropriations process. The reform act made the six-day delivery requirement enshrined in law.

Heading toward the future

Thompson’s view of the future of the Postal Service?

“I think it is promising. The whole parcel industry is growing. The USPS has a stake in that,” Thompson said.

“The United States Postal Service is more important than ever, especially during the pandemic. It was delivering medicine, delivering supplies that people needed,” said Thompson.

“The outlook looks up,” Thompson said. “People are still getting mail. We are still delivering mail, due to the postal reform that helped us a lot.”

Still, he said, the USPS faces the same challenges that every other company is dealing with, including the economic change that the pandemic caused.

According to Shaw’s book, mail volume declined during the 2007-08 housing crash and by 2020 first-class mail volume was down 45%, compared with 2007.

“The biggest challenges are USPS worker attrition and the dip in first-class mail volume. It is a challenge to get quality applicants to apply for a job and make a career out of it, just like any other business,” said Thompson.

The post office in Chicora, pictured in 1963. Submitted photo

Thompson said, “The USPS is dealing with (employee) attrition and getting people to apply for the job. We have an older workforce. They are starting to retire, and it’s getting newer, younger people.

Thompson said half the postal workforce was hired after 2013 and the other half is nearing retirement.

Thompson noted because of the pandemic there is a big push to work from home, but you can’t sort or deliver the mail from home.

Working to ensure trust

And with another presidential election looming, Thompson said the USPS is prepared to handle the mail-in ballots expected in this fall’s presidential election. During the last election, Thompson said, the USPS worked tremendously hard to handle the vote-by-mail ballots that are an option in many states.

“We had no issues or complaints from states that had mail-in voting,” Thompson said. “It was successful in the last (presidential) election, as far as I am concerned. The USPS also took care of the Census, (which) was done by mail and delivered COVID stimulus checks by mail.”

The USPS said it is working to ensure public trust in the mail. The unique status of political and election mail makes its security a top priority during every election cycle. Whether a postal customer is sending campaign mailings, ballots, voter registration cards or absentee ballot applications, the USPS said its Postal Inspection Service monitors political and election mail as it moves through the postal network to prevent, identify and resolve any issues that might interfere with its secure and timely delivery.

And after the election comes the Christmas season.

The USPS, Thompson said, is planning for the upcoming holiday parcel delivery crush brought on by more and more people shopping online, although he pointed out the USPS was not transforming into a parcel delivery service.

Still, Thompson noted the USPS for the last Christmas season hired extra people to deliver packages seven days a week in a six-week time frame, as well as offering retirees to come back to work for six weeks to handle the swelling tide of packages.

Thompson said, “By law, the USPS has to be self-sufficient. The National Association of Letter Carriers is constantly watching and monitoring. It is a work in progress.”

But one thing remains as constant as the mail. On April 9, the USPS filed notice with the Postal Regulatory Commission to increase the price of a first-class forever stamp from 68 cents to 73 cents, effective July 14.

Men stand outside the Cabot post office in the early 20th century. Submitted photo

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