Shut Down the U.S. Postal Service

With its fabulous employee pensions and health care plans, this government agency costs the private sector way too much with very little in return

I went to the post office this week. This is something I try to avoid doing at all costs, like dental surgery and balancing my checkbook. But I had received a certified letter from somebody somewhere, and so out I trudged, to the post office at 7th and Dickinson, to retrieve it.

At 8:30 in the morning, there were two people in line ahead of me. There were five counter windows—and one open. As the clerk went through her sleepy routine of stamping and jotting on forms and opening drawers and walking to the back and to the front again, back and to the front again, I watched various other postal employees mull about, some mumbling to one another, others simply circling the place. One was eating a doughnut. It was like a casting call for The Walking Dead.

Eighteen minutes later—yes, 18, and remember, I was third in line—I finally got to the window to retrieve my letter. The clerk had me sign for it, then handed me an envelope—addressed to someone else. We endured another five-minute dance to finally find the right one.

My point isn’t that my time is so precious I shouldn’t have to wait in line, and occasionally a cumbersome or long line, for my turn. That’s life. My point is that my trip to the post office is hardly an anomaly, but rather typical. Because when was the last time you stepped into an efficiently run post office? (Need proof? Read a post by Philly Post contributor Richard Rys bemoaning the post office on South Broad Street.)

Thought so. In case you haven’t heard, the U.S. Postal Service is in some serious trouble. The cost of mailing a letter will rise to 45 cents in January, part of the agency’s attempts to offset annual losses that totaled $10 billion last year and could balloon to $16 billion a year by 2016. First-class mail volume is dropping like a stone, and expected to continue to drop at a rate of 7 percent a year through 2020.

So I’m going to just say it: It’s time to disband the U.S. Postal Service.

The biggest problem the postal service has is the one no one wants to discuss: It has crushing pension and health-care obligations to its work force, promises it had no business making and can’t hope to keep. In other words, it is spending a good chunk of its revenue paying—and paying generously—defined-benefit pensions and benefits for people who no longer work for it. I know of at least two different people who retired with fabulous post-office pensions before they turned 50. Just calculate that for a second: If they each live to 80, they will have collected pensions and Tiffany health care for longer than they worked for the post office. Police and firefighters have similar sterling opportunities to cash out, but at least we justify that by saying they’re risking their lives during the time they’re on the job. But the people who throw a booklet of stamps at you? Who have a phrase for snapping and committing mass murder named after them? This is a service we are supposed to all band together to save?

Typically, the media has dragged out its heart-tugging stories of ye olde post offices in Little Towns, USA that are threatened with closure, replete with fist-waving seniors talking about these “hubs of the community” and weeping steel-bunned postmistresses. “I just wish they would leave our post office alone,” retired nurse’s aide Norma Bowling told the New York Times earlier this month, about hers in rural Neville, Ohio. “If I couldn’t come here to get my mail every morning, I’d feel a big part of me has died.”

Really, Norma? News flash: While you’re out there with your coffee gossiping with your other retirees about who’s got bursitis and recapping last night’s episode of Desperate Housewives, the rest of us are paying for your quaint little post office. I’ve got news for all of you: Welcome to the new American way of life. Those of us who work in the private sector have, for years now, lived with the unsettling hum of a daily existence that includes going to work and not really being entirely sure the office is still going to be open when you get there. We’ve seen our job security, never great in the first place, disappear overnight, our health benefits slashed, and our jobs combined and combined and combined until we’re each zipping each other work emails most nights before bed. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t work at least some portion of the weekend or send email from a vacation. And I’m supposed to pay more for postage just so you can keep your clubhouse?

The conundrum of the postal service only serves to reminds us that in America today there are two classes of people: the people who work for government—who can shoot someone in the hallway and not get fired, who never sweat a doctor’s bill, and who don’t have to save a dime for retirement because Uncle Sam & Co. have it all covered—and the rest of us, who pay for all of that.

Yes, yes, yes, I can already hear your caterwauling from here: I know that there are people in the public sector who work hard. But there are far too many who don’t, and a disproportionate amount of them are at the post office. I can only hope that the crisis becomes so critical that someone wakes up and pulls the plug, privatizes the whole shebang, and forces some of these drones to actually work for a living. Perhaps then the other hordes who greedily gobble at the government trough might begin to see how the other half is living.

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  • Eric

    The Post Office does not receive taxpayer funds to operate. You are not paying for anyone’s post office, except insofar as you purchase things from the post office and use them. So really, what exactly is your objection?

  • http://phillymag.com Leyla C

    Well said and whole heartedly agree. Put an end to this miserable institution and hopefully the other government institutions will follow.

  • Lauren

    Eric is right – taxpayers don’t pay for the post office. Do you seriously have a problem with paying 45 cents for your letter to go anywhere in the US? Also, their healthcare is not sterling and I promise you that they pay for doctors bills.

  • insurancemom

    As to the idea of privatizing anything to make it more cost-effective or efficient . . .

    Private business exists to make a profit. Therefore, it will provide only those products and services which are profitable…which may significantly limit the services provided.

    As to efficiency, have you dealt with your cable company lately?

  • Jim Sheehan

    There are actually some excellent post offices. The staff in the office in Blue Bell, Pa. is always cheerful, good-humored, efficient, and helpful, despite staffing and hour limitations which can make for long lines and occasionally grumpy patrons. The staff in my small home post office in Cohoes, New York greets customers by name, and try to sort customers’ different needs (form completion, information, reporting postal frauds, someone to talk to) to keep the line moving. I suspect that good employees at City post offices look for opportunities to transfer to more convenient locations.
    The original idea of the Post Office was to bind together a new nation by providing a single communications system to which any citizen could access. We may disagree on the extent to which we still need this communications system, but it is important to distinguish between the continued need for the mail system and the work which postal employees perform every day. If you want an opportunity to see a private sector organization which (in my own limited experience) cannot match the Postal Service’s performance, try reaching a live helpful human at Comcast about your cable service, or Verizon about your mobile phone.

  • JP

    In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. This law requires the Postal Service to do something that no other business or government agency has to do, pre-fund its FUTURE retiree health care benefits. This is a 75 year liability that has to be paid in 10 years……The Post Office has been paying these benefits the past four years into a trust fund for employees who have not even been born yet. This is the burden that is creating the “financial crisis” for the Post Office. The recession that has gripped America the past few years has undoubtedly affected the Postal Service, but even in the worst economic times since the great depression, the USPS has had a net profit of $611 million dollars.

    http://my.firedoglake.com/kaytillow/2011/09/26/whats-the-real-story-behind-the-postal-crisis/

    • FR

      “The original idea of the Post Office was to bind together a new nation by providing a single communications system to which any citizen could access.”

      Clearly, the post office has outlived this original idea to which we now have internet, e-mail, phones, bill pay centers (electronic and brick) and other private enterprises that can be used to serve paper instead of certified mail.

      I say be gone with it already.

  • James

    I would like to see the PO stop making sooo many versions of the stamp. One stamp, the flag stamp ONLY please. No celebrities, animals, holidays, etc. Just a plain flag stamp. This and other similar changes in operations could save some real $.

    • C-love2000

      I agree! Who really takes an actually moment to look at the stamp style when opening their mail? The postal seal/stamp covers it anyway.

  • Mike R

    That looks like a real hard job you have there,maybe your just a little jealous

  • Stephen

    Excellent points made regarding the Post Office’s ridiculous benefit package. While I believe USPS is a very worthwhile institution it angers me just how nasty some of the postal workers are. Working in Center City, I go to the Wanamaker station on 1234 Market St (12th & Market). A few years ago there were some lovely women who worked there who were very helpful and pleasant unfortunately they all retired (see article for great reasons why.) What is left at Wanamaker is a person Jackie who is off her rocker and VERY nasty. God forbid you get to the front of the line and don’t have the right form because she will send you to the end of the line. I don’t know why she is such a b**** but perhaps she’s just really miserable. Truly her behavior is abhorrent and completely disrespectful of decent customers. My advice – stay the hell away from that place! I hope everything they promised that low-life gets rescinded and she gets booted sooner rather than later but I know there’s little chance in hell of that happening due to threat of lawsuit. I swear this woman is racist too. It’s not my fault I’m white honey!

  • someone with good reading comprehension

    yet another jerk who takes a trivially unpleasant personal experience to malign an entire institution, and millions of americans that he judges as inferior to him. people do have other jobs at the local p.o. besides waiting on customers at the window. most people feel the need for community, whether you think they are worthy or not.

    btw, i have been pleasantly surprised whenever i’ve had to go to the post office in my little working class town just outside of philly. maybe if the author wasn’t such an entitled jerk he would have more pleasant experiences with the little people he comes in contact with.

    and please, do we really need another cheerleader for the race to the bottom? this perception that undeserving workers are getting something for nothing is ruining this country.

  • Kathy

    Wow, wish I new what great retirement package you are talking about. Rural Carrier, my retirement is the money I put away…the USPS does do a matching 5%. After 16 years the USPS “retirement” is $5700.00. If not for money I’ve put away (which is taking a big hit with the stock market now) I wouldn’t have anything. Maybe the “Upper Management” (you know, the ones that make all the rules but don’t do any real work) have a great retirement but the ones doing the real work don’t. Like the former Postmaster General – getting big bonus and all the great benefits – why? the PO is losing money – therefore upper management shouldn’t get the bonuses.

  • Harry

    I don’t think a whole box of tissues would be enough to dry all those tears. Seems he regrets his career choice. Postal Service receives NO government funding. 2006 Postal Act has had a devastating financial effect on the postal service. Another scribe who writes on impulse without checking his facts, sounds lazy himself. How sad.

  • Dina Burdeshaw

    This person is like a great percentage of Americans – misinformed. The postal service is not costing the private sector anything as it DOES NOT receive any taxes from the US government. I do agree that it is mismanaged, however.
    Those people he saw milling around in the back were probably city and rural carriers waiting on their mail. They do not work the window – that is the clerk positions. Apparently that clerk was one who did not value her job and did not care about service – unfortunately there are more than we care to admit. But the majority of postal employees care about their customers. I am a retired rural carrier with 19 years 10 months with the postal service (the remainder of my 31 years and 4 months was with civil service with the Air Guard).
    As far as the “great retirement” goes, my retirement is roughly $850 per month for 31 years service. I dare say he will get more than that when he retires.

  • Michael Callahan

    As the author, I just need to respond a bit here to some of these comments alleging I am misinformed. The Postal Service is a GOVERNMENT agency. To say it is not is hair-splitting and completely disingenuous; there’s a reason Congress is holding hearings on its future, people. And it strikes me as interesting that no one who defends it has commented on the points I raised about its general mismanagement, its terrible customer service, and the fact that, typical of all public-sector enterprises, it is almost impossible to fire people who do their jobs badly or not at all. As for the last comment on *my* retirement, I would love a defined pension benefit of $850 a month. Because I do not work for the government or any of its many arms–that includes USPS–I’ll get zero.

  • Bill

    You should know the facts before writing about something, you know nothing about. your credibility is shot.

  • george

    i am glad someone finally said this out loud. however, this can not happen. these people could not get jobs at wal-mart, so we have to keep giving them white collar welfare.

  • Tom

    When was the last time the Post Office had a layoff? Give up? Never, they can’t. Those people standing around are getting paid for doing, not much. They have had government bailouts.

    Start running it like a business, not a government aid program. If you don’t need people, let them go. Have you ever noticed that it costs less to send via UPS or Fed Ex ground than USPS? Why is that?

    When was the last time government ran anything domestic better than private enterprise?

  • JP

    “The Post Office adds a million new delivery points each year and has simultaneously reduced the number of employees nationwide from over 700,000 three years ago to about 590,000 today.  On time delivery service standards are at an all time high.  The Postal Service has been named the most trusted government agency six years running”.

    Facts are interesting if you read them.

    http://my.firedoglake.com/kaytillow/2011/09/26/whats-the-real-story-behind-the-postal-crisis/

  • sporty

    I bet the author gets Social Security when he retires, unlike govt workers under the defined pension plan. Since 84 it is a combo of SS and 401k type plan with a small bit from a pension that the employee pays into. Don’t worry, that will change when Congress makes some changes….. They will make changes ….

  • Phillyboy

    Michael,

    Since you are jealous of benefits others get, why don’t you get a real job instead of working for a trashy magazine? How can someone retire at 50 as you say, when the minimum retirement age is 55 with 30 years service? Next time you write trash putting someone down, do some research. And yes, you have a holier than thou attitude.

  • Julie Moore

    you are so wrong! About ALL of this! First of all my husband is a cop. He makes $12 per hr. Oh yea baby! We’re rolling in it! That health insurance you’re talking about denied him for SIX MONTHS after he got back from his last National Guard deployment. We finally ended up going back on Tricare through the Guard. Unfortunately it doesn’t pay anywhere near as much on your doctor bills as the active duty version of it. I’m a Rural Carrier Associate. I’m lucky to clear $500 a month. If my husband wasn’t also an awesome mechanic I wouldn’t clear that. IF I ever get on full time I’ll be pushing 50 yrs old.