May 28, 2020
By Steve Wishnia
WASHINGTON—“The Postal Service doesn’t need any more debt,” says American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein.
Speaking on a phone press conference May 27 with three other postal-worker union leaders and members, Dimondstein said the COVID-19 pandemic has put the Postal Service into a “double crisis”: Coping with a virus that has infected thousands of its workers, while losing revenue from a drastic drop in the volume of mail.
While the Postal Service is delivering more packages and parcels due to increased online shopping, it’s handling 30% less mail than it did a year ago, said National Postal Mail Handlers Union President Paul Hogrogian. It’s now projected to lose $22 billion over the next 18 months, he added. Without “real relief,” said Dimondstein, it could run out of money by early this fall.
The unions—APWU, NPMHU, and the National Association of Letter Carriers—are pinning their hopes on the Senate approving the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion stimulus package passed by the House May 15. It would give the Postal Service $25 billion in direct aid to cover its lost revenue and additional expenses such as protective equipment and paid sick leave.
The Trump administration, particularly Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, blocked direct aid to the Postal Service in the $2.3 trillion CARES Act, enacted in late March. That bill ended up offering the Postal Service $10 billion in loans, with the Treasury Department setting conditions that the NALC calls “ideological and operational changes.”
“This administration is outright hostile,” Hogrogian said. “We can’t let them use COVID-19 as a vehicle for privatization.”
The Senate has not taken any action on the Heroes Act, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called it an “absurd, unserious proposal” on May 21. The unions hope to win support from Republican senators from rural states, and to press House Democrats not to “cave in,” said Hogrogian.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), chair of the committee that oversees the Postal Service, did not respond to phone calls and emails from LaborPress.
The epidemic has pushed the Postal Service’s long-term fiscal crisis, the 2006 law that requires it to spend more than $5 billion a year prefunding retirees’ health care 75 years in advance, onto the back burner. While those costs have made up 90% of the Postal Service’s losses since 2008, said National Association of Letter Carriers Vice President Brian Renfroe, “right now, our focus is on sustaining us through COVID-19.”
The Postal Service will also be “absolutely essential” if voting by mail is expanded to prevent voters from being exposed to the virus at the polls, said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. But that would not cost it any money, said Dimondstein, as either states or individual voters would pay postage on ballots.
“In the pandemic, if people are going to have access to the ballot box, you’ve got to have a vital Postal Service,” Dimondstein said. He called the Trump administration’s claims that it would lead to voter fraud a “false issue.”
Members of the military serving overseas already send in there ballots in by mail, as do more than half of voters in California, he noted, and there’s “no evidence that there’s voter fraud outside a minuscule amount.”
Meanwhile, the unions estimate that more than 13,000 of the nation’s 600,000 postal workers and letter carriers have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and more than 60 have died. The Merrifield processing and distribution center in Washington’s Virginia suburbs is handling packages at a “holiday volume rate,” but with slightly less than three-fourths of its staff, said mail handler Dwight Burnside, an NPMHU member.
Management has been cooperative about working with the union to provide personal protective equipment and cleaning the facility more often, Burnside said. But workers overall, he added, don’t feel that the Trump administration “understands how important the work we do is to the country.”
The Postal Service’s fate will come down to “how strongly the people of this country” support it, said Dimondstein. “The public sector, the public good, needs to be taken care of.”
A poll conducted for the National Association of Letter Carriers in April by the Republican-oriented North Star Opinion Research and the Democratic-oriented Hart Research Associates found that 92% of respondents wanted Congress to appropriate money to enable the Postal Service to maintain operations during the epidemic. That included 83% of independents, 90% of Republicans and rural voters, 94% of retirees, and 96% of Democrats.
“It’s really significant that this is not a partisan issue for the people of this country,” Dimondstein said.