With its steep financial challenges, the U.S. Postal Service desperately needs to find innovative solutions, including new ways to deliver services to the public.

A pilot project with Staples stores around the nation does that.

But feeling ignored in this equation are postal workers left watching as their jobs go to private employers who can pay their employees less, even as postal employment plummets.

The largest postal employee union and a U.S. senator say the pilot also is a step toward privatization of the USPS, an assertion the postmaster general vehemently denies.

Here’s the story:

The Staples pilot project, called the Retail Partner Expansion Program, began in October. Eighty-two stores nationwide, though none in the D.C. area, have sections resembling mini-post offices. They sell a variety of products and services, including stamps, Priority Mail, Priority Mail Express and package handling. Staples doesn’t offer registered mail, money orders, stamped envelopes or post office boxes.

“Our goal,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in an interview, “is to provide universal access to products and services, and if we can do that through agreements with companies like Staples . . . we need to do that. . . . It gives us an opportunity to grow the business.”

That’s cool, as far as the American Postal Workers Union is concerned, but why not have postal employees work those counters in Staples? “I can’t dictate to Staples what their hiring policies should be,” said Donahoe, who is chief executive of the Postal Service.

But can’t USPS say it wants a postal employee to sell postal products at a postal counter in Staples? “It would never be my intention to do that,” he said. “That’s their business. . . . That’s their call.”

It’s the wrong call, APWU President Mark Dimondstein said.

“This is a direct assault on our jobs and on public postal services,” he said in a statement. “The APWU supports the expansion of postal services. But we are adamantly opposed to USPS plans to replace good-paying union jobs with non-union low-wage jobs held by workers who have no accountability for the safety and security of the mail.”

Carrie McElwee, a Staples spokeswoman, would not discuss the pay or union status of the company’s workforce.

Dimondstein also fears that the Staples experiment foreshadows a privatization of the U.S. Postal Service. He is concerned about maintaining “the infrastructure of the Postal Service that belongs to the people of this country.”

The APWU is willing to go along with the Staples project if it uses postal employees, “but we also have to be very careful that the private companies don’t become the Postal Service, because those private companies can be here today and [not] be here tomorrow,” Dimondstein said by phone. “We don’t want private companies making decisions about what’s best for the public good and the public service when their bottom line is simply profit.”

Donahoe said the Staples project is good for the public and for postal employees, too.

“My goal is to grow the business,” he said. “If we grow the business, that benefits 490,000 career employees and another 100,000-plus non-career. It’s good for everybody.”

The number of postal workers has fallen by about 44 percent since 2000, Donahoe said. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected these declines in the postal workforce between 2012 and 2022: postal mail sorters, processors and processing-machine operators, 30 percent; mail carriers, 27 percent; and mail superintendents, 24 percent. Postal finances are improving, but the Postal Service lost $5 billion in fiscal 2013.

Donahoe said privatization “would be a crazy idea. I think the Postal Service as structured is a great service provider. . . . Why would we ever put anything like that at risk?”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, doesn’t think USPS provides great service, and he also warns against privatization. Tester said he doesn’t object to postal products being sold in stores, but he was critical of Donahoe for seeking to shut postal facilities, which Tester said would delay deliveries.

Delivery standards are a personal issue with Tester, an issue he wants addressed in postal reform legislation that has bounced around Capitol Hill for years.

“I’ve been late for house payments” because of poor delivery resulting from the closing of processing centers, he said in an office interview. He said his wife mails payments a week earlier than previously.

“What I see this postmaster general doing is shutting down post offices, then saying let Staples do it,” Tester said. “Well, guess what: I don’t have a Staples.” Tester farms wheat outside Big Sandy, Mont., which has 600 residents.

Donahoe “can say whatever he wants,” Tester said, “but I think he wants to privatize. And I think there’s plenty of people in Congress who agree with that. I don’t.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.