Last week, the post office announced that rather than close thousands of rural post offices around the country to cut costs and reduce a ballooning deficit, it would drastically reduce hours at many of those locations. Some, in fact, would now be open for as little as two hours a day.
The postmaster general called the compromise a “win-win;” and Judy Stocker, president of the American Postal Workers Union told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “It’s not the gloom and doom I was personally expecting.”
But it’s hard not to see this move as an act of desperation and Stocker’s resigned attitude as an indication of just how bad things really are. In fact, not even those trying to save rural post offices are portraying the compromise as a victory.
For the last couple of years, 3,700 small-town post offices have been threatened with closure under a proposal, backed by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, to fix the grave financial situation of the postal service, which lost $3.2 billion in its most recent quarter. Without any reforms, the post office says it would lose $14 billion this year alone.
Last week’s plan will, instead, reduce hours to some 9,000 of the nation’s 13,000 rural post offices to between two and four hours a day.
You might think that cutting post office hours would dramatically cut into the deficit, right? Not really. The plan, which involves laying off a number of postmasters general, who often have much higher wages than regular postal workers, would save only about $500 million a year — a mere fraction of the shortfall. That’s why Steve Hutkins, a man who has fought to keep small-town post offices afloat, isn’t happy about the move. “I think they’re still committed to dismantling the postal service and putting it on a footing for privatization,” says Hutkins, founder of savethepostoffice.com.
But the postmaster general maintains that the crisis has been averted. “This is a win-win,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said at a news conference last week. “The bottom line is that any rural community that wants to retain their post office will be doing that.”
The fact is that it’s unclear who’s winning here.
For customers, services are going to be cut. “When people start to realize the amount of hours these post offices are going to be open is so minimal, it’s going to be a real headache,” Hutkins says.
And for the post office, the move does little to address the real problem: The funding of pre-retiree health benefits. The post office is lobbying Congress to allow it to reform the law mandating that it set aside billions of dollars for health benefits every year. Bills to that effect are inching their way through Congress. Meanwhile, however, the post office can do little to institute deep reforms until Congress intervenes.
For now, rural Americans still have their post offices. They should just check the hours before heading out to buy some stamps.