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.

Burris suggested that the poor finances will generate talk in the White House and Congress about privatizing the postal service.

While saying he can't tell his members how to vote, he did say that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) previously voted to privatize certain federal jobs, while Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) voted against such Bush administration efforts.

"As postal employees cast their votes in the 2008 election, protecting our employment must be a decisive factor in the choices we make," Burris said. "This time the decision cannot be based on abortion, guns, terrorism, or experience. This time it is about your job."

The Death of MaxHR

Union leaders are hailing the demise of a Department of Homeland Security personnel management system that undermined collective-bargaining rights.

The department canceled the system because Congress, at the urging of employee unions, killed funding for it in appropriations legislation that was signed into law Tuesday.

The system, once known as MaxHR, has been under attack for years. Unions won a court case against it in 2005, successfully arguing that portions of the system illegally altered collective bargaining, due process and appeal rights.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called MaxHR "the first big effort to dismantle the civil service, unions and the GS [General Schedule] pay system."

Engaging Workers

It's probably a coincidence, but the day after good government groups said strong leadership is necessary to develop a more engaged federal workforce, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Steve Preston held a town meeting with his employees. They weren't all in town, however. In addition to those who packed HUD's auditorium, which looked a lot like a television studio, workers in 80 HUD offices around the country were connected via video hookup and e-mail.

Preston, who took on the job in June, worked the stage like a veteran performer, joking about one staffer's loud socks, asking members of various offices to raise their hands, then leading applause for their good works.

His tone became a bit more serious when he told workers the department needs a "much more organized and thoughtful employee development process" so they can be promoted.

They agreed with hearty applause.

Contact Joe Davidson atfederaldiary@washpost.com.

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