SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Helen Barnes watches for the postman most afternoons.
She knows he’s due around lunchtime. Six days a week, the shuffle out to the mailbox to collect her bills, catalogs and solicitations is part of her routine.
The cornerstones of mail service — daily home and next-day local delivery — are as important to her as fair play in her regular card game and proper seasoning in her soup at lunch.
But even Barnes, my 86-year-old grandmother, acknowledges the U.S. Postal Service’s approach is as antiquated as some of her furniture.
“Most days there’s nothing but junk mail anyway,” she said. “I could do without it some days. But then I guess the exercise is good for me.”
The Postal Service announced plans Thursday to close 223 mail processing centers and eliminate 30,000 jobs. The cuts include the distribution center here in Savannah, which employs more than 200 workers, close to half of which are expected to be laid off sometime this summer. Nationwide, a few thousand retail post offices and their staffs are likely to follow.
The wisdom of this slash-and-burn tactic is debatable. Much of the Postal Service’s financial woes stem from a nonsensical prefunding of retiree health benefits and an overpaid pension fund. The Postal Service’s Inspector General, David Williams, pegs the health benefits “war chest” at $326 billion. The pension fund boasts a $13 billion surplus.
Correct these areas and the USPS won’t shake into oblivion like Polaroid. But you needn’t hold an MBA to recognize the folly of continuing to do business the way you always have when the demand for your main product — first-class mail — drops 27 percent in three years.
Or be a Darwinian scholar to grasp the long-range ramifications of online bill pay, now used by 60 percent of Americans and up 55 percent in the last decade. And the number in growing.
The USPS might not be broke fiscally, but it is broke from a business model standpoint.
Change comes harder to the Postal Service than to organized religions.
Much of the resistance — in both instances — is due to the faithful.
The USPS has floated ideas like cutting back on the number of delivery days and revamping its service guidelines. Another notion, one unsaid publicly, is to charge a nominal home delivery fee.
The customer base rebuffs all these measures. And because Congress owns the Postal Service, and Congress answers to the customer base, the USPS refuses to evolve.
Never mind that the customer base is made up of the same folks who are doing less and less business with the Postal Service.
Cutting out one day of home delivery per week is the 18-game NFL schedule of the debate; it keeps coming up for consideration. Yet the idea’s mere mention elicits more howls than Rosanne Barr’s rendition of the National Anthem.
Here’s the question all the wailing drowns out: How many of us walk to the end of the driveway to collect our mail from the box six days a week? Unfortunately, no hard research exists.
Yet talk to those who live in an area not served by home delivery — Tybee Island, for instance – and you realize picking up the mail everyday is not as vital to survival as eating, sleeping and breathing.
“”We pick up our mail three times a week, tops,” said Ginny Murphy, who like 90 percent of Tybee residents gets her post via a PO box. “There’s nothing all that time sensitive in there. Maybe you open a birthday card a day late.”
Tybee provides insight into the home delivery fee notion.
Ostensibly, delivery charges, including mail truck gas, insurance and maintenance, are worked into the postage rate. Yet those sending mail to a PO box don’t get a discount.
And those receiving post through a box must pay to rent the box.
So why couldn’t the Postal Service bill those who get home delivery $3 to $5 a month for the service?
Heresy you say? What about the elderly who lack the mobility to visit a PO box? Or the poor who can’t bear the costs?
Set up a waiver process. There’s no need to put thumb-breakers on the USPS payroll.
The Postal Service’s current crisis is an opportunity for change. The closing of the mail processing centers may be the magic pill, although the job losses are ominous. And changes to the retiree health benefits and pension may lend some sustainability.
But just as my children’s generation will one day largely read newspapers on a computer screen and rent movies exclusively through their TV remotes, their dependence on the Postal Service will shrink.
Finding the most cost-efficient way to serve their needs in the digital age should be the mission. Success will require thinking outside the mailbox.