Government timetables for vital services that touch virtually everybody in the country are in jeopardy because of the cold weather and the coal strike.
Even as the Social Security Administration and Treasury gear up to mail out checks to 1 of 7 Americans, the U.S. Postal Service is bracing for cutbacks and partial shutdowns that could delay mail in some areas.
Other services, such as those handling unemployment insurance claims and the smooth flow of income-tax counseling, refunds and collections face trouble. Agencies in areas hit hard by freak winter storms and cold are running dangerously low on coal supplies needed to keep offices warm enough to stay open.
The most critical problem at the moment faces the U.S. Postal Service, the government's single largest agency. USPS officials in four states - Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana and Pennsylvania - are preparing to take emergency actions that could divert and slow mail deliveries.
Actions include mandatory cuts in power, turning down thermostats to 55 and rerouting mail away from facilities where power shortages are imminent. The mere act of turning down thermostats 10 degrees could slow production work on machines in cases in which a high degree of manual dexterity is required.
Elimination of nonessential services could mean that clerks and carriers would be diverted from less pressing work to direct processing of first class mail.
Turning off the lights in relatively low priority work areas also could slow processing of some kinds of mail and catalogues, and some window services to the public.
Postal officials also have discussed the possibility of temporily dropping 24-hour-a-day operations in some areas and having crews work longer hours in a basic 16-hour work day,
Post offices in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, Dayton, Columbus and Youngstown, Ohio, face power cuts because of dwindling coal stocks that are used to generate electric power. Offices in which automation is important would be especially hard hit.
In addition, the USPS is having or anticipating power-shortage problems for offices in the entire state of West Virginia, in many areas of Indiana and around Pittsburgh. Many key post offices that are part of a national mail relay system are preparing for the worst.
Internal Revenue Service offices in som cities also are facing power cuts that could cause problems for taxpayers and tax collectors if they last long.
In West Virginia, coal supplies are low and officials there face the problem of delivering goods and services - including mail - in mountainous areas where snow and ice have virtually paralyzed some communities.
Social Security Administration officials say they don't anticipate any problems in processing or mailing the 34 million checks that will go out later this month. But they concede that if the Postal Service has extreme problems, "beneficiaries in areas with weather or power problems would be in the same situation as everybody else."
Some state and local government offices in Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Kentucky have reported problems in processing claims because of weather or power problems.