May 8, 2020
Oped by Senator Angus King
For more than 200 years, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night has prevented the men and women of the United States Postal Service from fulfilling their duty to keep Americans in touch with one another. These days, we can add “pandemic” to the list – because even as the coronavirus has altered nearly every aspect of our society, the USPS continues to do its vital work.
But even as the USPS continues to serve the American public, it too feels the impact of the ongoing economic slowdown. Decreased use of mail during this crisis – mailers, magazines, advertising – along with a misguided federal law that requires the service to prefund its retiree health benefits 75 years into the future (a requirement that, by the way, applies to USPS and only USPS) have put this American institution in jeopardy.
To help the Postal Service through this difficult time, as Congress did with enterprises nationwide, the CARES Act included a $10 billion loan for USPS. The CARES Act is now law – but to date, the Administration has refused to release this loan, and the President has signaled he will continue to block the funds unless the USPS makes major changes to its service. This effort to play economic hardball during a society-altering pandemic will almost certainly undermine critical national services that support communities across the country – especially rural communities, many of which continue to struggle with access to affordable broadband.
The death of USPS would limit access to healthcare in the midst of a pandemic, interfere with ongoing commerce during a drastic economic downturn, and threaten the livelihoods of thousands of Maine people while millions of workers are already losing their jobs. Let me be clear: this is not only wrong; it’s just plain stupid.
First and foremost: the impact on health, which should be everyone’s first priority in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. The USPS delivers over four million prescriptions nationwide, every single day. As the nation’s oldest and most rural state, people across Maine rely on the USPS to receive their long-term prescriptions through the mail. The inexpensive rates of the USPS allow the distribution of 90 days of medication, instead of the typical 30 days available at pharmacies, reducing the need for single-purpose trips to pharmacies. If the USPS ceased or cut back operations during the pandemic, many vulnerable Maine people would have to choose between risking their health at least once per month for a pharmacy visit or going without needed medications. Neither choice is acceptable – but neither is necessary if we protect the USPS.
Any threat to the Postal Service is also a threat to businesses of all sizes from across the country – many of which have built large parts of their business models around the services and prices of the USPS. As the majority of Americans stay home in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many shuttered businesses have transitioned to delivery by using the USPS. This has created an economic lifeline for businesses across the country – especially in rural regions, which are able to use USPS services at no additional cost.
That last point is critical, because many of the criticisms of the USPS’s financial model deeply misunderstand its purpose. The USPS isn’t a business – it’s a public service designed to facilitate commerce in every corner of our country. Its goal isn’t to make profits, but rather to facilitate universal communication and give businesses across the country the opportunity to succeed. If we tear down this infrastructure, those businesses and the customers who rely on them will suffer greatly. It may be worthwhile to hold a larger conversation about the wisest pricing structure for postal services to strengthen the Postal Service’s long-term prospects in a changing marketplace. But to have it during a pandemic, and enhance the suffering that is already being felt by businesses and customers alike? Ridiculous.
Last but certainly not least: the United States Postal Service isn’t just a collection of blue mailboxes. It’s made up of people – hundreds of thousands of employees across the nation, including more than 3,300 Maine people, who are able to support their families, be productive, well-regarded members of their communities, and provide essential services for their neighbors. Any attack on the Postal Service is an attack on these workers – and any action (or inaction) that threatens the future of the USPS risks leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans unemployed during a moment when unemployment is already seeing record surges. It doesn’t make sense for our economy, and it doesn’t make sense for working American families.
Whatever problems the Administration has with the USPS, now is not the time to try to extract concessions. Right now – in the middle of a historic global pandemic – our focus must be on stabilizing this institution that dates back to our nation’s very founding and currently enables any number of critical components of American life. When it comes down to it, this is simple: the Administration needs to release the money Congress approved so the post office can continue to serve our country both during this pandemic and once we get through it.
Angus King has served as Maine’s junior United States senator since 2013.