Mail carrier

Moline mail carrier Darlene Lane says she's frequently asked about the U.S. Postal Service's financial woes while she's on her route. Most of the questions deal with whether the Postal Service will drop a delivery day, but she's not sure how to answer them. (Larry Fisher/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

Larry Fisher

The letter carriers have even considered adding groceries to their mailbags to boost delivery volume.

Times are tight for the U.S. Postal Service, which is considering eliminating Saturday delivery, among other cost-saving moves.

But union representatives for the postal service in the Quad-City area say there is a solution to the financial woes that plague the agency: Congress should give back billions of dollars in overpayments to the agency’s pension fund and stop requiring massive pre-payments on retiree health care.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe recently pitched the idea the Postal Service would have a much greater chance of achieving solvency if Congress would “resolve” a law specific to the agency, requiring annual payments of $5.5 billion to pay future employee retirement health benefits in advance.

Donahoe also is asking for the return of $6.9 billion in overpayments to the Federal Employees Retirement System.

Unions associated with the Postal Service are making an even stronger case, saying as much as $75 billion in pension overpayments have been made. Furthermore, without the pre-funding obligation for retirees’ health care, the Postal Service would have amassed a $611 million surplus over the past four years, rather than facing possible default on the retiree health care obligation.

“We’re supposed to advance 75 years of expenses in 10 years’ time,” said George Bates, president of American Postal Workers Union, APWU, Local 109. “Congress basically saw us as a cash cow, which we were for a period of time.”

Postal unions are arguing that although mail volume is declining considerably, neither the Internet nor the weak economy is the biggest problem today. The congressional mandate, they say, is forcing them into unnecessary financial struggle.

In the past four years, the agency has reduced costs by $12 billion and its career work force by 110,000. But Donahoe told members of Congress this month that another $20 billion in costs must go away by 2015 to return to profitability.

“But this really isn’t about saving mail jobs,” Bates said. “It’s about saving the Postal Service for the American people.”

Lori Roudebush, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, NALC, Branch 318, said more layoffs and the proposed reduction to five-day delivery could lead only to more problems.

“We’re the most trusted government agency in the country,” she said. “Who’s going to take over if we stop delivering? Who will fill the gap? It won’t be people who look out for neighborhoods, watch for accumulating mail and pass background checks.

“If we dump Saturday delivery, we’re looking at a loss of at least 30,000 jobs. That’s a lot of money that’s not being paid into income tax and a lot of money going out for unemployment. Here’s the craziest thing: The money we’ve put into future retirees’ health care is funding for people who haven’t even been born yet.”

Iowa U.S. Reps. Bruce Braley, David Loebsack and Leonard Boswell, Democrats, and Tom Latham, Republican, are among dozens of co-sponsors of a House resolution that would allow the Postal Service to apply pension-fund overpayments to the required pre-funding of future retirees’ health care.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., declined to say whether he would support a reimbursement of the Postal Service overpayments.

“Rep. Schilling, like many others, believes that the United States Postal Service needs serious structural reform to increase its efficiency and sustain its existence,” said Andrea Pivarunas, a spokeswoman for Schilling. “Folks across the country depend on the USPS and value its service, and steps must be taken to ensure a fiscally sound future.”

Several postal unions will conduct an informational picket Sept. 27 outside Schilling’s Moline office.

Meanwhile, the wait for a decision on five-day delivery continues to hound the Postal Service, Bates said.

“They’re really banking on five-day delivery, so they’re hesitant to hire people,” he said. “Those who are left are working a lot of overtime. But also, advertisers are diverting their printed materials elsewhere, because they’re afraid there’s no guarantee their material will be delivered by USPS.”

Darlene Lane, a Moline mail carrier who has worked for the Postal Service since 1999, said her customers want to know what is going to happen next, and she is not sure how to answer.

“I have people out there stopping me every day to ask about five-day delivery and whether there’s anything they can do,” she said. “We’ve looked at all sort of things to help our profitability, including grocery delivery.

“No other entity goes to every home in America six days a week. We hold contracts with UPS and FedEx for residential deliveries of their materials. And keep in mind: All that stuff that’s ordered online has to be delivered.

“People want to know what happens if we go away. I don’t see how we can.”

Bates said, whatever becomes of the U.S. Postal Service, it is not likely to be a call made by the workers.

“The unions can’t save it,” he said. “The American people have to save it.”