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In the war on COVID-19, lawmakers must deliver for the U.S. Postal Service

We disagree with lawmakers’ astonishingly shortsighted move last month to exclude the financially troubled postal service from the $2.2 trillion coronavirus bailout. The agency is on the front line in the fight against COVID-19.

Letter carrier Don Dahlstrom examines his deliveries as he walks a route on Atwells Avenue in Providence, R.I., Friday, April 7, 2000. Letter carriers around New England are being forced to walk more of their routes because of repeated accidents in which parked mail trucks rolled away. (AP Photo/Jon Mahoney) ORG XMIT: BX104
While most of us remain under stay-at-home orders, postal workers are showing up daily, processing and delivering the nation’s mail.
AP file photo

If ever there were an entity that deserves financial relief from the coronavirus, it’s the U.S. Postal Service.

We fail to understand President Donald Trump and Congress’ astonishingly shortsighted move last month to exclude the financially troubled postal service from the nation’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus bailout.

The postal service is on the front line in the COVID-19 battle, processing and delivering 500,000 pieces of mail daily, including the prescription medicines, lab tests and medical supplies needed during the pandemic.

The postal service will also be pressed into service to deliver relief checks to American workers and families in the upcoming months, and it could play an important role in upholding our democracy in the fall if voting-by-mail becomes a reality.

Now is no time to leave the postal service empty-handed. But that’s exactly what the House and Senate and the president have done. And without emergency help, the agency — so important to the nation that its duties were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution more than 230 years ago — could be out of business by June.

The damage would be felt nationwide, and perhaps particularly in Chicago, one of the country’s major postal centers.

A dire situation

The creation of a postal system was a signal that the United States had arrived as a nation; as important in its day — and still today in many ways — as coast-to-coast electricity and telephone service.

But for years the agency has struggled financially, losing $8.8 billion last year. Much of that loss has been due to a dramatic drop in the volume of mail in the age of the internet. A second major factor has been a requirement that the postal service pre-fund billions of dollars in health care benefits each year for future retirees, as opposed to the pay-as-you-go method used by other government agencies.

The pandemic has made things only worse for the agency, as it bears the added costs of coronavirus-related sanitation and maintenance across its vast network. Far less mail is being sent during the coronavirus crisis, which means less postage is collected. The postal service says mail volume could drop by at least 50 percent this year — the biggest drop since the Great Depression.

The National Association of Letter Carriers warns that postal revenues, which topped $70 billion last year, could be less than half that amount in 2020.

“Postal Service officials warn that without immediate intervention, the precipitous drop off in mail use across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic could shutter the postal service’s doors as early as June,” Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, D-New York, and Gerald E. Connolly, D-Virginia, wrote in a joint letter to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell on March 24, two days before the bill was approved by the Senate.

The House stimulus package included $25 billion in emergency appropriations to the postal service, but the set-aside was struck from the final bill that was passed by both houses and signed into law.

While much of the country’s labor force continues to follow stay-at-home orders, postal service employees are showing up for work daily, processing and delivering the nation’s mail — and paying a physical price for it: The agency reports 60 confirmed cases of the coronavirus among its employees so far. Two thousand of its 630,000 employees are under quarantine after having been exposed to the virus.

What should come next?

Since passage of the federal stimulus package last month, we have argued that a second, more comprehensive, relief bill will be needed soon, and that lawmakers should get cracking on it. When they do, they should include billions for the U.S. Postal Service and commit to reworking certain requirements that have financially hamstrung the agency.

The next relief bill bill should eliminate an odious provision under current law that allows the already debt-ridden agency to borrow even more money — up to $10 billion from the U.S. Treasury — to fund efforts to deliver medical products faster and keep employees safer from the virus while doing so. This is a supposed lifesaver for the postal service — greater borrowing powers instead of direct financial assistance — that helps the agency not at all.

“The postal service needs our help now,” Maloney and Connelly said in their letter.

We know there are limits to what the federal government can do to make right all that’s going wrong because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as best we can see, a fully functioning and aggressive postal service is a part of the solution to this crisis.

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