Tuesday, September 6, 2011


The United States Postal Service has long lived on the financial edge, but it has never been as close to the precipice as it is today: the agency is so low on cash that it will not be able to make a $5.5 billion payment due this month and may have to shut down entirely this winter unless Congress takes emergency action to stabilize its finances. “Our situation is extremely serious,” the postmaster general, Patrick R. Donahoe, said in an interview. “If Congress doesn’t act, we will default.”

The post office’s problems stem from one hard reality: it is being squeezed on both revenue and costs. As any computer user knows, the Internet revolution has led to people and businesses sending far less conventional mail.

At the same time, decades of contractual promises made to unionized workers, including no-layoff clauses, are increasing the post office’s costs. Labor represents 80 percent of the agency’s expenses, compared with 53 percent at United Parcel Service and 32 percent at FedEx, its two biggest private competitors. Postal workers also receive more generous health benefits than most other federal employees.

Missing the $5.5 billion payment due on Sept. 30, intended to finance retirees’ future health care, won’t cause immediate disaster. But sometime early next year, the agency will run out of money to pay its employees and gas up its trucks, officials warn, forcing it to stop delivering the roughly three billion pieces of mail it handles weekly.

Mail volume has plummeted with the rise of e-mail, electronic bill-paying and a Web that makes everything from fashion catalogs to news instantly available. The system will handle an estimated 167 billion pieces of mail this fiscal year, down 22 percent from five years ago. It’s difficult to imagine that trend reversing, and pessimistic projections suggest that volume could plunge to 118 billion pieces by 2020. The law also prevents the post office from raising postage fees faster than inflation.

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