Poll says most Americans back halting Saturday mail but not closing post offices

By Ed O'Keefe and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A majority of Americans support ending Saturday mail delivery to help the U.S. Postal Service solve its financial problems, but most oppose shuttering local branches, according to a new Washington Post poll.

The public support for moving to five-day delivery might bolster a proposal to end six-day delivery as the mail agency faces declining mail volume and expects at least $238 billion in losses by 2020. Cutting Saturday delivery would save $3.3 billion in the first year and about $5.1 billion by 2020, Postmaster General John E. Potter said Monday. But the changes would mean cutting the equivalent of 40,000 full- and part-time jobs through layoffs and attrition, Potter said as he prepared to formally submit his proposals to postal regulators Tuesday.

Under the plan, letter carriers would stop delivering mail to U.S. homes and businesses and would not pick up mail from blue collection boxes on Saturdays. Post offices would stay open on Saturdays and mail would be delivered to post office boxes. Mail accepted at post offices Saturdays would be processed on Mondays. Express mail and remittance mail services would continue seven days a week.

Potter's proposal has the support of 71 percent of Americans, with most Democrats, Republicans and independents in favor, according to the poll.

The revisions would mean big changes for how customers send and receive mail. Residential and business addresses would not receive regular mail for three consecutive days on weekends that include a Monday federal holiday, such as Presidents' Day. Federal, state and local agencies would have to shift the delivery of checks and other benefits to ensure they arrive before Saturday. The increased use of direct deposits and debit cards should ease potential negative impact, postal officials said. Other mailers, including magazine publishers and gift companies, might also have to alter their schedules to ensure timely delivery.

If the changes are approved, Saturday delivery cuts probably would not occur before March 2011. The Postal Regulatory Commission would have to issue a nonbinding advisory opinion, a process that should take six months, Potter said. Congress would have to eliminate a rider in the annual appropriations bill that mandates six-day delivery, a process that would probably be concluded by fall. The Postal Service would then wait six months before implementing any approved cuts, allowing time for customers to shift delivery schedules and for an advertising campaign to explain the changes, Potter said.

The Postal Service also would cut about 26,000 full-time positions through attrition and eliminate the equivalent of 13,000 part-time jobs, Potter said. The attrition should come easily, since the average age of a letter carrier is 53, and about 10,000 carriers retire each year, he said. Most of the part-time workers carry the mail only one day a week as a substitute for a full-time carrier.

The Postal Service Board of Governors approved the cuts last week, ordering Potter to submit the proposals to the commission Tuesday. Potter and others have said, however, that the board of governors might soon have to consider other ways to save money, including closing thousands of post offices and raising stamp prices.

Despite the popularity of the proposal to cut Saturday service, closing post offices is much less popular, according to the poll. Sixty-four percent of Americans oppose closing post offices, including their local branch, the poll shows. Those with college degrees or more education divided about equally on this question (47 percent approval vs. 51 percent disapproval), and those with less formal education broadly opposed the idea (29 percent to 70 percent). The idea of closing post offices hasn't advanced beyond discussion stages, but Potter and others have said the mail agency will consider closures if it can't save money elsewhere.

Fifty-five percent of poll respondents said they oppose raising stamp prices. The idea earned majority support from liberals and those from households with annual income of $100,000 and higher, but 66 percent of conservatives oppose it.

The Postal Service receives no taxpayer funding, receiving revenue from the sale of postal products and services. Fifty-eight percent of Democrats said they support providing federal funds, if necessary, but a majority of Republicans and independents oppose such a move.

As for the future of U.S. mail delivery, nearly as many Americans said they trust e-mail to send messages reliably as they do the Postal Service. Overall, 43 percent said they think e-mail is more dependable; 47 percent said the Postal Service is. That's up considerably from a 1994 poll when the Internet was in its infancy and the Postal Service had a better than 2 to 1 advantage. A majority of people younger than 30 put more faith in e-mail, and seniors overwhelmingly support traditional mail.

Two-thirds of respondents said they expect traditional "snail mail" to be obsolete by the end of the century; 29 percent said it will still be in use. Potter was asked to submit his plans to the commission via e-mail, at the regulatory panel's request.

The poll was conducted by telephone March 23-26, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults, including users of conventional and cellular phones.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company