Retail locations add to debate about service’s future.
Visitors to the Staples in Lenox Marketplace now can find a special U.S. Postal Service counter, where they can buy stamps and mail packages.
On Tuesday they also found about 50 protesters recruited by the American Postal Workers Union, who say the move is a step toward privatization and are making the Staples deal a front in the fight over the shape of the 21st-century postal service.
Atlanta is one of five test markets around the nation for the partnership between Staples and the Postal Service, an arrangement that began in 82 stores in October and could expand to 1,600 stores nationwide. It’s a potential new revenue stream for the Postal Service, which is grappling with funding shortfalls.
Postal Service spokeswoman Darleen Reid-deMeo said the arrangement also helps expand customer service, as Staples locations are open on nights and weekends when post offices aren’t.
But the postal unions are not pleased that Staples employees, and not postal employees, are handling mail and dealing with customers. The number of career postal employees declined from 696,000 in 2006 to 490,000 in 2013, as the Postal Service shed labor costs.
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, one of four postal unions, said he fears the Staples arrangement will cannibalize post offices near Staples stores, forcing them to close as the service shrinks further.
“That’s our vision of the future: Provide more services that the people need and that (the Postal Service) could be there and vibrant for generations to come,” Dimondstein said. “And the Postal Service wants it to be privatized piece by piece, and in between, somebody making a buck.”
Reid-deMeo said the partnership “has nothing to do with downsizing, short-sizing, closing post offices, none of it. It’s only meant to enhance current services available to customers.”
People can buy stamps and other postal products at 65,000 non-post office locations around the country. The Staples arrangement is unique in that the stores house a miniature, USPS-branded post office run by Staples employees. The USPS is the exclusive mailing and shipping option at the Staples locations, which will offer stamps, package weighing and mail drops, but not registered mail or money order services.
The future of the Postal Service is a topic of considerable debate in Washington. A quasi-governmental agency, the USPS does not receive a direct taxpayer subsidy, but is overseen by Congress and the postal regulatory commission.
The biggest short-term financial challenge for the USPS is the result of a 2006 law requiring it to prefund future retiree health care obligations at a cost of $5.6 billion per year. The requirement has helped send the Postal Service into debt. It has defaulted on payments in the past two years and expects to do so again this year, as it has run out of borrowing authority.
Take away the prefunding requirement, and the Postal Service would have turned a profit last year thanks in part to increasing pacage business from e-commerce.
“The Internet taketh and giveth,” Dimondstein said.
Both the unions and Postal Service leadership want to get rid of the pre-funding requirement, but the five-year business plan for the USPS calls for further cost-cutting measures — from reducing employee benefits to five-day letter delivery.
Many of those recommendations are included in a bipartisan postal reform bill making its way through the Senate, over the objection of the unions.
Dimondstein envisions an expanded service. He pointed to a recent report by the Postal Service inspector general advocating that the USPS use its vast network of offices and public trust to invest in banking services.
The Postal Service could make $8.9 billion per year by providing financial services such as a special “postal card” that could be used for cash withdrawals and financial transactions, according to the inspector general’s report. A small-loan program could help low-income Americans avoid high interest rates from payday lenders.
“It has generated great interest among a number of politicians, a number of community groups that are concerned about these alternative financial services that are nothing more than legal loan sharking that have been preying on the working poor for decades now,” Dimondstein said.
Reid-deMao said Congress would have to approve any move into banking, but the Postal Service is looking into the possibility. “We like the idea of anything that’s going to expand service to the American public, but right now that’s not on the immediate table, though it is certainly being considered,” she said.
At the Atlanta Staples protest, union leaders warned that customer service is at risk from postage handlers who are not held to the same standards. But customers had a generally positive view.
“I do sympathize with the postal workers, but I really wouldn’t think that would make that big of an impact on their jobs,” said Reginal Thomas, a Buckhead entertainment consultant.
“Most people who have the post office on their mind will go to the post office. But like me coming here to Staples today and seeing the post office might remind me of something I need. If it’s more convenient, it makes more sense.”
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