Can it get much worse? The Senate tries postal reform, again

February 3, 2014


The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs finally took up its postal reform bill at a markup session on Wednesday, January 29.  The new S.1486 the committee took up is significantly different from the Carper-Coburn bill released last August.  The current version, aka the substitute bill or the managers’ amendment, has introduced changes to the rate system, regulatory oversight, and facility closings that are worth close scrutiny.

The leadership of the Postal Service has expressed satisfaction with the new substitute bill.  No wonder.  It reads like the fulfillment of PMG Donahoe’s and the Board of Governor’s wish list.  It grants them new powers over ratemaking, adds language regarding contract negotiations favorable to management, and creates a separate postal employee health plan within the current Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP).  The bill also addresses the retiree health benefit prefunding, while adding a new prefunding requirement for workman’s compensation.

Whatever its final form, the postal reform bill that comes out of the Senate will represent the next step in a process that has been going on since the Postal Service was created in 1971.  For the last forty years the leadership of the Postal Service has pursued a course that treats the postal network in terms of a corporate business model that simply provides a delivery service.  Postal leaders do not seem much interested in the view of the postal system as basic national infrastructure that connects American homes and businesses with each other and with their government.  They do not seem very committed to a broad vision of the universal service obligation.  They do not seem to understand what our Founders grasped so clearly — the important role of the postal network as a fundamental element of democracy, furthering access to information and creating connections in a way that bound the nation together.  

Postal Service releases post office closure and suspension lists for 2013

February 2, 2014

The Postal Service has released the official lists of post office closings and suspensions in FY 2013.  The lists come in response to a Chairman’s Information Request made as part of the Annual Compliance Determination Review (ACDR) conducted by the Postal Regulatory Commission.

The lists can be downloaded from the PRC website here.  We’ve also put them on Google docs for easy access: the closure list is here and a map here; the suspension list is here.  (Note the tabs for each sheet at the bottom of the spreadsheets.)

A discussion of the discontinuances and suspensions that have taken place over the past year can be found in this post.  Here’s a brief update.

Postal Service ignores moratorium on post office closings, shuts down Glenoaks Station

January 31, 2014

On September 19, 2013, in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Postmaster General Donahoe made a pledge not to close post offices or processing plants while Congress debated postal reform.  That promise seemed dubious at the time because several post offices were closing at that very moment, but soon the closings did seem to come to a halt.

Aside from the PMG’s comment at the Senate hearing, there was never an official announcement of a moratorium on closings, but then on January 13, 2014, the Postal Service sent a letter to residents in Glencoe, Alabama, indicating that there was in fact a moratorium in effect. 

The Postal Service said that a notice it had sent the previous week announcing the potential closing of the Glencoe post office had been "issued in error."  As the letter went on to explain, "We are in a moratorium.  Any correspondence and activity concerning the proposed closing of Glencoe has been put on hold until further notice.”

Despite the PMG’s pledge and this acknowledgement that there’s a moratorium, the Postal Service is closing the Glenoaks Station post office in Burbank, California.  According to an article in the Burbank Leader yesterday, the Glenoaks post office closed its doors this month. 

The Postal Service has had plans to sell the building housing the Glenoaks post office since 2009, after a Facility Optimization study selected the facility for disposal.  Now those plans are finally being realized.   “We have to remove equipment and prepare it to market it,” Postal Service spokesman Richard Maher said. “Whatever we get for it would be revenue generation.”

Though the plans had been in the works since 2009, the Postal Service waited until March 2011 before announcing that it would be studying the Glenoaks post office for closure.  The discontinuance study was conducted that spring, but it would be two more years before a final determination was issued, on June 20, 2013.  

Congressman Adam Schiff, who represents the Burbank area, called the decision “misguided” and urged the Postal Service to reconsider.  Nine residents of Burbank appealed the decision to the Postal Regulatory Commission, and comments were also filed by yours truly, Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office, on behalf of one of the petitioners. 

The Glenoaks appeal was a significant case because after the appeals were filed the Postal Service immediately filed a Motion to Dismiss in which it tried out a new argument for why the PRC should dismiss appeals.  Based on the fact that a few previous appeals had been dismissed because the closures were seen as part of a “rearrangement of retail facilities,” the Postal Service claimed that closing Glenoaks was also part of such a “rearrangement” so the appeal should be dismissed.

The Postal Service’s argument represented an unprecedented expansion of the scope of what a “rearrangement” could mean.  There were no other facility actions taking place in Burbank that might justify seeing the Glenoaks closure as part of a larger realignment of retail services.  The Postal Service had gone through a normal discontinuance procedure, and the post office was closing, pure and simple. 

Dismissing appeals has become an all-too-common practice with the PRC.  Of the last eleven appeals that have been filed, eight have been dismissed or rejected without review.  If the Glenoaks appeal had been dismissed on the grounds that it was part of a “rearrangement,” it would have opened the door to many more appeals being dismissed.  That denies communities the right to due process, and it allows the Postal Service to close post offices in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner without concern for subsequent review by the Commission or anyone else.

The disappearing postal workforce: Counting up the losses

January 27, 2014


On the first Friday of each month, economists, policymakers, and professionals in the finance industry wait for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to release the current jobs report.  The BLS report, which quantifies unemployment in the U.S., is widely seen as one of the primary economic indicators.  While some folks may judge the health of the economy in the wake of a recession by how quickly stock markets return to previous highs or by increases in corporate profits, those hit hardest by downturns are the unemployed, and they judge economic recovery by the availability of jobs.

As this paper from Brookings Institute discusses, the recoveries from the last three recessions have been largely jobless, that is, the economy did not start producing new jobs even as stock markets and corporate profits rebounded.  The unemployment rate coming out of the current recession has dropped slowly, although a large part of that drop has been due to people leaving the labor force in frustration over not only the lack of jobs but also the lack of good jobs.

One of the greatest impediments to a return to prosperity for the average American has been the loss of jobs in the public sector.  In past recoveries countercyclical increases in public sector employment have cushioned the overall economy.  As this report from the Economic Policy Institute indicates, the recovery from the current recession is very different than in past recessions.  Rather than providing the support it usually does, public sector employment has been a drag on the recovery.  As of 2012 the public sector had shed 680,000 jobs.  Plus, research demonstrates that the loss of public sector employment adds to job losses in the private sector as the impacts echo through the economy.


Pulling numbers out of the HAT

Just as the BLS regularly releases statistics relating to unemployment, the Postal Service regularly releases data showing its level of employment.  Two reports, HAT and ORPES, show the numbers of current employees in various categories.  The two reports don’t perfectly correspond, but together they give a sense of the direction in postal employment.

In the most recent HAT report, there were 492,571 career employees and 121,287 noncareer employees for a total of 613,858.  ORPES reports career employees in a pay status as well as career employees on the rolls, the difference being employees on OWCP and in another non-pay status.  ORPES also compares the current period against SPLY.  The current edition shows a decrease of 32,889 postal employees from December 2012 to December 2013.

There are other sources of data for postal employment.  The Postal Service’s website has a chart that gives a snapshot of revenues, volumes, and employment from 2003-2012.  This chart shows the numbers of postal employees going back to 1926. Finally, this report from the Congressional Research Service discusses the postal workforce and the trends and changes in it since 1990.

Since 2000, the Postal Service has shed 300,000 career jobs — a drop of almost 40 percent.  The Postal Service eliminated 37,400 jobs in fiscal 2013 alone.  And it’s not going to get any better.  Over the next few years, postal jobs are going to keep disappearing — at a faster rate than in any other sector of the labor force.  According to the Occupational Outlooks Handbook just put out by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, by 2022 the number of clerks, mail processing workers, and letter carriers will decline another 28 percent — 139,000 more jobs gone.

What is striking as one looks at all this data is not only the drop in postal employment but also the increase in part-time and noncareer employees.  At the end of 2010, about 12.5% of the workforce was noncareer.  Now about 20% of the postal workforce is noncareer.  If one factors in part-time career employees (whose percentage has been relatively stable), about 24% of the workforce is less than full-time.  

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