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At the Postal Service, Talk of Layoffs

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By Joe Davidson
Friday, October 3, 2008

Here's another sad sign of our economic times: Never before has the U.S. Postal Service laid off workers. Now, it's a real possibility.

"For the first time in history, that is being considered," said Gerald McKiernan, a USPS spokesman.

Already, the Postal Service is not hiring because it simply doesn't move as much mail as it once did. E-mail has taken an increasing amount of its business. McKiernan says mail volume dropped 11 percent in fiscal 2008, which ended Tuesday. That resulted in the service spending $2.3 billion more than it took in.

In a message to his members, American Postal Workers Union President William Burris said Postmaster General John E. Potter told union leaders that "16,000 USPS employees lack the six years of continuous service required to achieve protection against layoffs."

For Burris, the "message was clear: For the first time in our history, postal employees may experience layoffs."

The 2008 deficit is USPS's largest, "but for the first time in postal history, the losses cannot be recovered by postage rate increases," he said.

Rates can't be raised because the law allows increases only under certain circumstances. One is a substantial jump in mail volume. Not likely.

Significant productivity improvement is another reason, but Burris said "regrettably, there are no prospects" for that.

The third situation allowing postage increases is the exigency clause, which Burris said, "offers an exception to the law's prohibition against increasing postage rates above the rate of inflation; it permits such increases in 'extraordinary or exceptional' circumstances."

With what the economy has been through the last couple of weeks, a good argument could be made that these certainly are exceptional, make that exceptionally bad, times. But raising postal rates in this electronic age could be counterproductive.

"Industry observers suggest that if postage rates rise too sharply, major mailers would abandon hard-copy communication in favor of e-mail and other technologies," Burris wrote.

Despite how easy it is to complain about mail service, it really is a bargain. You can send a love letter from Washington, D.C., to someone as close as Wilmington, Del., or as far away as Wasilla, Alaska, for only 42 cents, generally with assurance that it will arrive in a reasonable amount of time.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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