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.”
In recent weeks, Mr. Donahoe has been pushing a series of painful cost-cutting measures to erase the agency’s deficit, which will reach $9.2 billion this fiscal year. They include eliminating Saturday mail delivery, closing up to 3,700 postal locations and laying off 120,000 workers — nearly one-fifth of the agency’s work force — despite a no-layoffs clause in the unions’ contracts.
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.
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Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe warned that the Postal Service is on "the brink of default" as he battles to keep his agency solvent. Without legislation by Sept. 30, the agency "will default on a mandated $5.5 billion payment to the Treasury," Donahoe told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
And with no congressional action, a year from now, next August or September, the post office could run out of money to pay salaries and contractors, hampering its ability to operate, Donahoe said.
"We do not want taxpayer money," Donahoe said, "We have got to get our finances in order."
Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said: "We must act quickly. The U.S. Postal Service is not an 18th century relic, it is a 21st century national asset, but times are changing rapidly now and so, too, must the post office."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted that the post office supports a $1.1 trillion mailing industry employing more than 8 million people in direct mail, periodicals, catalogs, financial services and other businesses.