The U.S. Postal Service used to promote itself with the slogan "We deliver for you."
Now, the struggling mail and package service appears to be operating under a different motto: "You'll get your mail — when we're darn good and ready to deliver it!"
The USPS is seeking ways to avoid bankruptcy in the face of a $14 billion loss projected for next year. The postal service is struggling with the changing nature of modern communications. Mail volume has declined as Americans increasingly use electronic means of communication, such as paying bills online or sending email and text messages.
Pension obligations and health care costs are further hurting the postal service. The postal service is under a mandate to pay $5.5 billion a year into its pension fund, a requirement that postal union leaders and some in Congress want to rescind.
To cope with the projected loss, the postal service has floated a number of proposals including eliminating Saturday delivery of mail or closing small post offices and some large distribution centers.
Among the more controversial of the plans is a change in the delivery standards for first-class mail. Since 1971, the standard has been that first-class mail will arrive the next day. The proposal would set the standard for first-class delivery to two or three days.
That prospect has business customers riled. They depend on prompt mail delivery, particularly when their customers are paying by check.
"I have a small business and most of my customers pay by check," Bill Brodie, an Andover resident who owns Classic Glass of North Reading, told reporter Bill Kirk. "With this economy and a tight cash flow, I don't want a delay in receiving my mail."
As columnist Taylor Armerding noted in his column last week, mail customers want prompt, reliable service. The struggling postal service is suggesting it can fix its problems by becoming slower and less reliable.
That's a recipe for disaster.
The postal service needs new ideas and innovation to reinvent itself. We live in an era of instantaneous communication. What good is a mail service that takes three days to deliver a letter?
The postal service needs the flexibility from its unions to change work schedules and delivery methods, to set staff levels to meet customers', not employees', needs.
And Congress should look as well at ending the postal monopoly, which limits the delivery of letters that are not "extremely urgent" to the post office and grants the service exclusive access to customers' mailboxes.
Competition among the postal service and private package carriers has produced fast and effective package delivery. Here, the postal service has shown that it is capable of innovation. The "If It Fits, It Ships" program is a case in point. The idea is that the post office will deliver, for a set price, whatever the customer can fit into a box of a given size. This saves the shipper the hassle of having to weigh and price each parcel down to a fraction of an ounce.
Despite the wonders of our electronic world, fast reliable mail service is still a necessity. The postal service is worth saving. Saving it will require a re-examination of the postal service's mission, and what it takes to achieve it.
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