Postal workers rally at legislators’ offices

by Keith Barber

Reggie Gentle (right), a 33-year veteran of the US Postal Service, collects petitions encouraging US Rep. Virginia Foxx to cosponsor a bill that would address a congressional mandate requiring the US Postal Service to pre-fund the cost of its retiree health benefits during a rally at Meadowbrook Mall in Clemmons on Sept. 27.

About 75 Forsyth County postal workers rallied outside the offices of US Rep. Virginia Foxx at Meadowbrook Mall in Clemmons last week to encourage Foxx to cosponsor a bill that would offer relief to the US Postal Service regarding a congressional mandate that the agency pre-fund the cost of its retiree health benefits for the next 75 years in just 10 years time.

The rally in Clemmons was one of scores of similar demonstrations by postal workers across the state and nation. Rallies were also held at the Greensboro offices of US Rep. Howard Coble and the Charlotte offices of US Rep. Mel Watt.

Reggie Gentle, a veteran postal worker with 33 years experience, said one of the purposes of the “Save America’s Postal Service” rallies was to raise awareness about the real reason for the current financial predicament of the postal service.

Since 2006, when Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, the postal service has reduced its workforce by 110,000 employees, said agency spokesperson Monica Robbs. She explained that the Postal Accountability Act required the postal service, beginning in 2007, to calculate the net present value of the future payments required to fund the pension benefits of its employees for the next 75 years by 2017. The law has required the postal service to pre-fund its healthcare package for retirees to the tune of $5.5 billion per year, Robbs said.

“That is the payment that currently today we stand prepared to default on,” Robbs said.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is now encouraging Congress to pass the Postal Reform Act of 2011 because the post office needs flexibility to operate as a business, Robbs said.

The Postal Reform Act establishes the Commission on Postal Reorganization and requires the postal service “to submit a plan for the closure or consolidation of postal retail facilities, mail processing facilities, and USPS area and district offices,” according to the bill’s text. The bill also requires the postal service to “implement the closure or consolidation of postal facilities and offices recommended by the commission unless Congress enacts a joint resolution disapproving the recommendations of the Commission.”

The bill would also allow the postal service to go to five-day delivery and make “adjustments” to rural delivery.

“Our collective bargaining agreements contain layoff restrictions that prohibit us from making rapid [workforce] reductions,” Robbs explained. “We have provisions in place for our non-union bargaining employees, but we would like to extend to our union bargaining employees the same provisions should a rapid reduction [in workforce] take place.”

Still, Robbs said the postal service has a commitment to its employees.

“They are the backbone of our operation, but this is about needing the flexibility to operate a business,” she said. “We have an obligation as an agency to provide service to our customers. When I say ‘we’ that encompasses every employee of the post office. We have one common goal — provide service to our customers. As an agency, we are looking for ways to continue to do that and still be fiscally responsible.”

Gentle, who works at Waughtown Station in Winston-Salem, disagreed with Robbs’ assessment.

He said it was unfair that Congress placed burdensome regulations on the postal service, considering the fact that no other company or agency in America is required by law to pre-fund its future retiree health benefits 75 years in advance. If not for the government mandate, the postal service would have been profitable in recent years, Gentle said. He added that the American public might not realize that the postal service doesn’t use a dime of taxpayer money and hasn’t been taxpayer funded in nearly 30 years.

The postal service doesn’t want a taxpayer bailout, Gentle said, and postal workers merely want their own surplus pension funds to pay for the pre-funding of retiree benefits. Gentle estimated the current surplus at $75 billion. Robbs agreed with Gentle’s assessment. A bill currently in Congress, the US Postal Service Pension Obligation Recalculation and Restoration Act of 2011, addresses giving the postal service credit for the fact that it has a surplus of $75 billion in its retiree pension plan.

The legislation levels the playing field by treating the US Postal Service like every other federal agency with regard to pre-funding future retirement benefits for its employees, Gentle said. The bill would transfer any surplus funding to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund, which would give the postal service credit and alleviate the burden of the $5.5 billion pre-funding due each fall.

Because the postal service doesn’t have the $5.5 billion this year, Donahoe has proposed a series of drastic cuts that are simply unacceptable, said Steve Kempf, vice-president of the Winston-Salem chapter of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

“The Postmaster General wants to go to five-day delivery, then go to four-day delivery and make us all part-timers,” Kempf said. “The simple fact is if we didn’t have to pay the [retiree health benefits] money, we’d be making money here. We’re only in trouble because of that pre-funding.”

James Singletary, a postal worker at Waughtown Station, said budget cuts have already led to the customer service window closing each day at 3 p.m., which has severely impacted revenue.

Waughtown Station is one of 20 post offices in the state currently undergoing a feasibility study as part of cost-saving measures implemented by the postal service.

The postal service will complete its review of Waughtown Station in December, and ultimately decide the office’s fate.

NC Rep. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth) pledged his support to the postal workers during last week’s rally. Womble said a number of his constituents are employed by the post office and all of his constituents are affected by the operations of the post office.

“The post office is one of the economic engines in any community,” Womble said. “Where you find post offices, you find businesses.”

Womble said he’s confident the petition drive currently underway by residents of east Winston-Salem to save the Waughtown Station from closure will yield thousands of signatures. Womble asked the postal workers for their petitions to add to the stack of petitions to save Waughtown Station from being shuttered.

Robbs said since 2006 the postal service has seen a steady decline of mail volume, and the agency’s bottom line has taken a big hit due to the loss of revenue.

Kempf said if Congress passes the Postal Reform Act it could open the door to privatization of the agency, which could adversely impact rural delivery.

“If they should win and go to five-day [delivery], we won’t have the sanctity of the mailbox anymore and who’s going to come in? The FedExes, the UPSes, and they’re going to grab the moneymakers, but the post office serves every house, every day.”

Title 39 of federal law mandates that “the postal service shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.” Title 39 also states that no small post office may be closed solely for operating at a deficit.

Robbs rejected the notion that the purpose of the Postal Reform Act might lead to the privatization of the postal service.

“For 200 years, we’ve been a federal agency whose core obligation is to provide postal services for all citizens and we expect that to continue for decades and decades to come,” Robbs said.

The official position of the US Postal Service on the Pension Obligation Recalculation and Restoration Act is that it does not give a specific resolution to the $5.5 billion annual pre-funding of retirement benefits for future employees, Robbs said. She acknowledged that the postal service has overpaid its retirement fund by $75 billion and has requested a refund. In the meantime, postal service revenues have been dwindling.

The postal service is attempting to adjust to advancements in technology and customer demand, Robbs said. For example, if the postal service closes a post office in a small town, the agency looks for existing businesses in that town to contract with to sell postal items. That preserves the area’s ZIP code and maintains postal services for all customers, she said.

Robbs said the change to five-day delivery would be the fiscally responsible thing to do, saving the agency an estimated $3 million annually.

Watt signed on as a cosponsor of the Restoration Act several weeks ago.

“For me, this is kind of a no-brainer,” Watt said. “In the final analysis, all it requires is a study to see if its fair to have the postal service to pay into a pension plan or healthcare plan the portion of benefits for the time that employees were not part of this independent postal service.”

Watt said he doesn’t see the bill as being controversial because it merely requires a study to determine if the calculation that determined that the US Postal Service must fund its retiree employment healthcare benefits at $5.5 billion is year is fair or unfair.

Still, the postal service needs to be self-sufficient and should have the flexibility to make necessary changes to ensure its solvency.

“You have to give the postal service the opportunity to support themselves, and the pressure is on because of the rise of technology and e-mail,” Watt said. “You cannot necessarily operate a postal service just to maintain jobs. The determination has been made that the post office needs to be operated as a business. It has to be right-sized.”

In a prepared statement, US Rep. Brad Miller said he supports the Restoration Act.

“We really don’t have to limit delivery, fire postal workers or close historic neighborhood post offices,” Miller said. “If the postal service funded future retiree benefits the way other public agencies and private businesses do, the postal service would go from a ruinous deficit to a tidy $600 million annual profit. Congress needs to fix that goofy quirk in the law before we add postal employees to the ranks of the unemployed.”

US Rep. Howard Coble said he was still closely examining the provisions of both the Pension Obligation Recalculation and Restoration Act and the Postal Reform Act and has not yet to decided to support either piece of legislation. Aaron Groen, a spokesman for Virginia Foxx, did not return calls seeking comment on Foxx’s position on the Restoration Act.

During last week’s rally, postal worker Steve Rogers summed up what’s at stake for him in Congress’s decision to either approve or reject the Restoration Act.

“This is our chance to save our jobs and our futures,” Rogers said. “If we don’t do something, the young people coming up will have nothing.”