GUEST EDITORIAL: Help our faltering postal system and stop the mail delays

The Baltimore Sun editorial board
Protesters hold a "Save the Post Office" demonstration outside a United States Postal Service location in Los Angeles on Aug. 22, 2020. (Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

It was one thing for holiday gifts and Christmas cards to arrive a little late because of delays at the United States Postal Service. In fact, some people found it a bit amusing, and a little nice, to get a gift a month or more late and be to able extend the holiday cheer. What is no laughing matter is all the other heartache, inconvenience and threat to people’s livelihoods and health that backlogs in deliveries has caused. And there seems to be no end in sight to the troubles.

People’s bill payments aren’t getting to creditors and banks on time. And W-2 forms have been delayed as well. Tenants are ending up delinquent on rent payments, and homeowners on mortgages. Life-enabling prescription drugs aren’t arriving in a timely manner, and businesses’ products and inventories are languishing in distribution facilities. Speeding tickets and other traffic violations are coming in after a fine is due, or close to it. Maryland’s congressional Democrats got so many complaints from constituents they wrote Postmaster General Louis DeJoy a letter demanding that he do something to improve mail delivery, saying he could start by walking back any cost-cutting he had put in place. Individuals are also airing their grievances on social media.

A large part of the problem is that USPS is experiencing an unprecedented crush of packages amid a pandemic-related increase in online shopping, and the busy holiday season compounded it all with a record 1.1 billion parcels sent. Add to that employees missing work or having to quarantine because of COVID-19 cases along with winter storms, and everything seems to be working against the agency. DeJoy didn’t help matters over the summer when he made operational changes to cut costs, he said, though they were widely seen as an attempt to interfere with the presidential election. Either way, the moves, which included dismantling 600 mail sorting machines nationwide, only hurt services.

There are calls to boot DeJoy from his job, which some had hoped would happen under a new administration. Unfortunately that is not easy. President Joe Biden does not hire or fire the postmaster general, as that’s the responsibility of the USPS Board of Governors. What President Biden can do is quickly appoint people to the three vacant positions on the nine-member board. The American Postal Workers Union has asked the president to appoint Democrats to give them a majority on the board. But at the very least, he should fill it with people who want to overhaul the system beyond haphazard cuts and who recognize the problems that existed even before the pandemic.

The USPS needs people with vision on how to make the agency solvent and who are unhindered by special interests. A May 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office said the current USPS business model is not financially sustainable because of three main problems: declining mail volumes, increased compensation and benefits costs, and increased unfunded liabilities and debt — the latter mainly from hundreds of millions of dollars in pension and retirement costs. And that was before DeJoy took over, and just a few months into the pandemic.

The GAO report also noted that Congress will have to take a lead on any overhaul because of laws that restrict what the Postal Service can do. Past attempts at legislation have gotten caught up in special interest politics and opposition. It’s time lawmakers get different interests to compromise. Talks of a bailout are all fine, but throwing money at a problem only helps if the core problems are addressed.

The new chair of the USPS board seems to get that concept. Ron Bloom, a Democrat and a former senior counsel to President Barack Obama, was elected to the position last week. “It will require both ourselves and our stakeholders to come together, openly face our challenges, make necessary choices and do what is right for this great organization and our country,” he said in a statement. Let’s see if he can make that happen. The Postal Service with all of its problem is still an essential need in this country.

In the meantime, some short-term fixes are needed to address the real challenges facing Americans whose lives mail delays are disrupting. We hope DeJoy takes seriously the call from Maryland lawmakers hearing from disgruntled voters. Long-term structural solutions are one thing, but that does nothing to help the elderly man who needs his blood pressure medicine.

— From The Baltimore Sun editorial board.