Tag: usps

The USPS’s ‘Automation Refugees’

Jim O’Brien, a vice-president at Time Inc. and chairman of the Mailers Council, recently guest-blogged on the U.S. Postal Service’s inspector general’s web site on the subject of “automation refugees.”

O’Brien explains the origination of the term:

Back in 1990, Halstein Stralberg coined the term “automation refugees” to describe Postal Service mail processing employees who were assigned to manual operations when automation eliminated the work they had been doing. Since the Postal Service couldn’t lay off these employees, they had to be given something to do, and manual processing seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb employees by the simple expedient of reducing its productivity. The result was a sharp decline in mail processing productivity and a sharp increase in mail processing costs for Periodicals class. Periodicals class cost coverage has declined steadily since that time.

O’Brien then tells of visiting seventeen mail processing facilities as part of a Joint Mail Processing Task Force in 1998. During those visits he noted that the periodical sorting machines always happened to be down even though the machines were supposed to be operating seventeen hours a day. Although the machines weren’t working, manual operations were always up and running.

A decade later, O’Brien points out that the situation apparently hasn’t changed:

More Periodicals mail is manually processed than ever, and manual productivity continues to decline. Periodicals Class now only covers 75% of its costs. How can this dismal pattern of declining productivity and rising costs continue more than two decades after it was first identified, especially when the Postal Service has invested millions of dollars in flats automation equipment?

O’Brien probably answered this question when he noted that the USPS couldn’t lay off these automation refugees back in 1990.

As I’ve discussed before, the USPS has a major union problem. A new Government Accountability Office report cites as a problem the fact that most postal employees are protected by “no-layoff” provisions. The USPS must also let go lower-cost part-time and temporary employees before it can lay off a full-time worker not covered by a no-layoff provision.

Unfortunately, recent comments from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed an unjustified concern for how potential reforms would affect postal employees. Labor isn’t the only problem facing the USPS, but Congress needs to understand that the postal service’s expensive unionized workforce is a crippling burden.

The Postal Service’s Union Problem

Comments from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a recent hearing on the U.S. Postal Service’s woes indicate they don’t appreciate the USPS’s union problem. Postmaster General John Potter went before the committee to make his case for restructuring the postal operation, including greater labor flexibility.

From GovExec.com:

“You have to find people meaningful work, or no matter how compassionate you are, you’re not doing them any favors,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, criticizing holding rooms where underemployed postal workers wait until there are tasks for them to perform. “How many billions of dollars would have been saved if you’d aggressively right-sized the force before you came to us and said you want to go from six days [of mail delivery] to five?”

Congressman Issa should be informed that it is union rules that prevent postal management from laying off underemployed postal workers and having to put them in holding rooms.

Issa told Potter during his opening statement that the Postal Service has “more or less a third more people than you need,” but he said it “is not really acceptable” to convert full-time jobs to part-time positions, unless applicants are looking specifically for part-time work or part-time positions that lead to full-time work. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., said she was concerned that part-time workers might not be treated fairly or could be excluded from collective bargaining agreements.

Lawmakers insisted repeatedly that even as the Postal Service confronts harsh financial realities, the agency must take into consideration the jobs of postal workers. “I’m hopeful this committee will find a way to deal with it that preserves the good faith that the people who serve the U.S. Postal Service have a right to expect,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

These members might want to read the Government Accountability Office’s latest report on the USPS, which called the mail monopoly’s business model “not viable.” Union labor is part of the problem. The average postal employee earns $83,000 a year in total compensation and 85 percent of its workforce is covered by collective bargaining agreements. Labor accounts for 80 percent of the USPS’s cost structure.

The GAO cites the following as reasons why USPS labor costs are so high:

  • The USPS covers a higher proportion of employee premiums for health care and life insurance than most other federal agencies, which is impressive because it’s hard to be more generous than federal agencies.
  • USPS workers participate in the federal workers’ compensation program, which generally provides larger benefits than the private sector. And instead of retiring when eligible, USPS workers can stay on the “more generous” workers’ compensation rolls.
  • Collective bargaining agreements limit the amount of part-time and contract workers the USPS can use to fit its workload needs, and they limit managers from assigning work to employees outside of their crafts. The latter explains why you get stuck waiting in line at the post office while other postal employees seemingly oblivious to customers’ needs go about doing less important tasks.
  • Most postal employees are protected by “no-layoff” provisions, and the USPS must let go lower-cost part-time and temporary employees before it can lay off a full-time worker not covered by a no-layoff provision.
  • If the collective bargaining process reaches binding arbitration, there is no statutory requirement for the USPS’s financial condition to be considered. This is like making the decision whether or not to go fishing, but not taking into consideration the fact that the boat has holes in its bottom.

The fact that Postmaster Potter has to go to Congress to plead for help to make business decisions points to a fundamental problem. Government-run businesses are necessarily hamstrung by the whims of politicians, who often only have a vague understanding of economics and business. If FedEx or UPS had to get congressional permission to manage its workforce, both would collapse. As mail volume falls, that’s where the USPS is headed unless we privatize it and deregulate postal markets.

Congress Is Hurdle to USPS Reforms

National Journal reports that two key policymakers don’t support the U.S. Postal Service’s desire to eliminate Saturday mail delivery. House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano (D-NY) says he’ll be working with USPS management and the postal unions to avoid service cuts. And House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee ranking member Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced that he too opposes the move.

Chaffetz intends to introduce legislation that would instead eliminate twelve delivery days a year. Twelve days? With the USPS facing $238 billion in losses over the next ten years, it’s hard to understand why the Republican congressman is fiddling around with such small changes.

From the article:

Chaffetz said he is concerned that if the Postal Service cuts Saturday deliveries, it could end up hurting itself in the long run by creating an opening for private delivery companies. “You have got to serve your customers, or somebody else will come in and do it for you,” he said.

What private delivery companies? UPS and FedEx are allowed to compete with the USPS on express mail delivery, but the USPS has a government-granted monopoly on regular mail. In pointing out that the USPS’s reduction in services isn’t good for customers, Chaffetz unintentionally make the cases for opening up the mails to competition from private providers.

“The challenge for the Postal Service is to become more relevant to people’s lives,” he said. “They have been cutting back … and I applaud them for that. The Postal Service is also one of the few things highlighted in U.S. Constitution. They’ve got to figure out ways to cut and make it more relevant.”

Mr. Chaffetz: The Constitution gives the federal government the power “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” It doesn’t say the government has to have a monopoly over the provision of mail. Nor does it say that Congress must perform this service. Today, there are better private options.

The reality is that the USPS is bleeding red ink because it is becoming less relevant to people’s lives because of electronic communication. Surely Rep. Chaffetz doesn’t want the government’s mail monopolist involved in electronic correspondence to make it more “relevant”?

A story out of Finland demonstrates why that would be a bad idea. Finland’s state-owned postal service is testing a cost-cutting idea that would have it open mail, scan it, and then send an electronic copy to a digital mailbox. The original mail would then be sealed up and physically delivered, but delivery would only be done twice a week. Fins are rightly concerned about their civil liberties being violated by the government viewing their private correspondence.

The underlying idea behind the Finnish experiment is nonetheless sound. In a competitive market for mail delivery, electronic scanning and transmittal would be a more cost-effective – and thus perhaps profitable – way of getting people their mail. This could be especially appealing for costly-to-deliver rural areas, which proponents of the USPS often cite as a reason why mail privatization is untenable.

Thoughts on Five-Day Mail

The USPS has taken the first step toward reducing mail delivery to five days a week by sending a request to the Postal Regulatory Commission. However, it will be ultimately up to Congress whether or not Saturday delivery is eliminated.

The USPS, which is in a death spiral, views the elimination of Saturday mail delivery service as a step toward regaining its financial footing. Not surprisingly, the decision is proving controversial among some members of Congress.

Here’s a better idea: give Americans the freedom to choose the mail services they want by repealing the USPS monopoly. That way consumers and businesses could choose to provide and use mail services zero days a week or seven days a week.

Online movie rental services like Netflix offer a small example. A lot of folks time their Netflix rentals so that they have movies for Saturday night. Eliminating Saturday delivery will necessarily degrade the quality of online movie rental services that people are paying for. With competition, Netflix could offer Saturday (or even Sunday) delivery through a private alternative. Perhaps there would be a surcharge, but at least consumers would be allowed to make that choice.

Supporters of the government mail monopoly regularly cite their amazement that they can drop a letter in a mailbox and it will arrive unharmed in another mailbox clear across the country. As a $70 billion operation with the largest workforce in the country, I would hope the USPS can pull off such a feat.

I find it more impressive that I can go into a grocery store almost anywhere in the country and be met with an incalculable number of choices. Take Coke products for instance. I recently made a list of the various Coke products available to me at a local grocery store. The following is just a sample: regular Coke, Diet Coke, Caffeine-Free Coke, Diet Caffeine-free Coke, Coke Zero, Coke with Splenda, Coke with Lime, Coke with Lemon, and Diet Coke Plus. Don’t like Coke?  There’s a similar array of Pepsi products. Don’t like either? The grocery stores also offer pricier micro-brands with all sorts of unique flavors.

These choices reflect the awesome power of the market, which provides nearly all the goods and services people want without any direction from officials in Washington. It would interesting to see what sorts of innovations and products private mail deliverers would come up with if the government’s mail monopoly didn’t exist. Instead, Americans are stuck with a government operation whose floundering business model will require it to raise prices while simultaneously reducing its services. So much for freedom of choice.

Postmaster Indicates Need for Privatization

A recent Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Postal Service’s dire financial prospects found little enthusiasm for the USPS’s idea to eliminate Saturday mail service. Financial Services subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) said “serious questions need to be asked and answered,” and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) expressed concern that it would send the USPS into “a death spiral.”

The USPS is already in a death spiral due to changes in technology, high labor costs, and costly congressional mandates that have left it facing a projected $238 billion in losses over the next ten years. The USPS says dropping Saturday service would save the USPS $3 billion a year. However, the Postal Regulatory Commission believes the savings would be significantly smaller. Regardless, if the USPS stops Saturday service then private firms should be allowed to provide Saturday mail service.

Better yet, the USPS monopoly should be completely repealed and private firms allowed to deliver mail every day of the week. Interestingly, Postmaster General John Potter’s testimony inadvertently makes a case for privatizing the USPS.

Potter notes that when private businesses are losing money, they sell off assets, close locations, and reduce employment. He cites Sears, L.L. Bean, and Starbucks as recent examples of companies making cost cutting moves in the face of declining revenues. The Government Accountability Office’s testimony noted that the USPS has more retail outlets (36,500) than McDonalds, Starbucks, and Walgreens combined. Yet, its post offices average 600 visits per week, which is only 10 percent of Walgreen’s average weekly traffic.

In his testimony, Potter states:

If the Postal Service were provided with the flexibilities used by businesses in the marketplace to streamline their operations and reduce costs, we would become a more efficient and effective organization. Such a change would also allow us to more quickly adapt to meet the evolving needs, demands, and activities of our customers, now and in the future.

This is precisely why the USPS needs to be privatized and subjected to the demands of the market and not the whims of Congress. Members of congress always raise a fuss when the USPS targets postal outlets for closure in their districts.

Potter wants Congress to suspend a requirement that the USPS pre-fund its retiree health benefits. He argues that the trust fund for these payments has a $35 billion balance, which he says is enough to pay the health premiums for its 500,000 retirees through their lifetimes.

The more fundamental problem is the existence of this generous benefit to begin with. Potter notes that private companies aren’t subject to a pre-funding mandate. But the vast majority of private companies don’t even offer retiree health benefits. The GAO also points out that the USPS retiree benefits are generous even by government standards:

USPS pays a higher percentage of employee health benefit premiums than other federal agencies (80 percent versus 72 percent, respectively). In addition, USPS pays 100 percent of employee life insurance premiums, while other federal agencies pay about 33 percent.

Potter naturally wants more flexibility in dealing with the USPS’s excessive labor costs. The average postal employee receives $83,000 a year in total compensation. Employee pay and benefits constitute 80 percent of the USPS’s cost structure, which despite increased automation has remained the same since the 1960s. But so long as the USPS remains a government enterprise, it’s hard to imagine Congress standing up to the postal unions and giving management the labor flexibility it desires.

Finally, Potter wants the USPS to have more freedom when it comes to pricing and getting into new lines of business:

We also need the ability to expand our products and services, and ensure prices for our Market-Dominant products are based on the demand and cost of each individual product.

“Market-Dominant” is an Orwellian way of saying “Government Granted Monopoly.” Again, if the Postmaster wants mail prices to have an economic rationale, then the USPS needs to be privatized so that the market can efficiently set prices. Further, the USPS has a poor track record when it comes to expanding into services not protected by its monopoly. Plus it would be competing against the private sector on advantageous terms due to its status as a government enterprise.

What Potter wants – and needs – is something that only the private sector can provide. If the Senate hearing is any indication, Congress has no present plans to relinquish its control over the dying government monopoly. Instead, the USPS will likely continue to bleed red until policymakers run out of band-aids and are finally confronted with the choice of either privatization or direct taxpayer funding.

Not So Intelligent Mail

In 2003, the U.S. Postal Service initiated the Intelligent Mail program, which would integrate thirty different barcode systems used by commercial mailers into a single system. Ideally, the new barcode system would improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve timeliness of delivery. However, a new report from the Government Accountability Office details numerous problems with the program’s implementation that are all-too-common in government:

  • Delays. The entire program was supposed to have been deployed by January 2009. Now it’s being done in phases, with the second phase completed by the end of November. Key components of the program have been “deferred,” including performance measurement capabilities required by law. Greater automation of the business mail verification process, which was one of the key justifications for the program, has also been left out.
  • Cost Overruns. To incorporate all the components as originally planned, the USPS will need to spend more money on a third phase. However, the GAO says that program managers aren’t sure money will be made available given the USPS’s poor financial condition. The GAO also found that program managers didn’t include all the costs associated with the program, and they therefore “lack an accurate total cost estimate.”
  • Poor Performance. The first phase is already being plagued by operational problems. As of June 2009, 73 issues had been identified by mailers and the USPS.
  • Mismanagement. The GAO sensibly recommended that the USPS define the program’s core requirements and use them as a basis for developing reliable cost estimates. But in a prime example of bureaucratic chutzpah, the USPS responded: “Any attempt to define the ‘entire program’ and the cost associated is a waste of funding and resources.”
  • Fraud. There is no evidence of fraud yet, but the GAO notes that “a conflict of interest exists because the prime contractor for the development of the program also manages program management office activities.”

Let’s rid ourselves of these problems and open mail delivery to competition and eventually privatize the USPS. As President Obama himself said in August, “UPS and FedEx are doing just fine…It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems.”

Government Mail Loses $3.8 Billion

The U.S. Postal Service reported that it lost $3.8 billion last fiscal year and that it expects to lose $7.8 billion this year. The loss occurred despite cost-cutting measures and legislation that allowed the USPS to forgo $4 billion in required payments to pre-fund retiree health benefits.

From the Associated Press:

The post office has been struggling to cope with a decline in mail volume caused by the shift to the Internet as well as the recession that resulted in a drop in advertising and other mail. Total mail volume was 177.1 billion pieces, compared to 202.7 billion pieces in 2008, a decline of almost 13 percent. For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 the agency had income of $68.1 billion, $6.8 billion less than in 2008. Expenditures were down $5.9 billion to $71.8 billion.

The recession and the rise in electronic communications are generating huge financial problems for the lumbering government monopoly. Despite its efforts to reduce headcount, the USPS remains overburdened by a costly and heavily unionized workforce. As I noted previously:

The average USPS worker earns $83,000 per year in compensation, which is considerably more than the average U.S. worker. And the Government Accountability Office recently noted that ‘compensation and benefits constitute close to 80 percent of USPS’s costs — a percentage that has remained similar over the years despite major advances in technology and the automation of postal operations.’

Radical reform is needed, but I suspect that Congress will just paper over the problems for now and also continue allowing the agency to defer funding its retirement obligations:

The post office is required to make an annual contribution of about $5 billion to pay in advance for medical benefits for future retirees. Congress reduced that by $4 billion for 2009, but that change was for one year only. The agency’s independent auditor, Ernst & Young, questioned whether the post office would have enough money to make the next payment on Sept. 30, 2010, when $5.5 billion will be due.

This will just kick the can down the road. It shows that even when Congress gets something right – as it did with making the USPS pre-fund its retiree health benefits – it lacks the will to see it through when the going gets tough. Meanwhile, the Europeans continue to make progress toward deregulating their national postal services and allowing for competition. Unfortunately, it seems that Congress only looks to Europe for guidance on expanding the welfare state.