WASHINGTON -- We could soon be seeing the end of Saturday mail delivery.
The Postal Service has announced plans to cut back to five-day-a-week deliveries for everything except packages to stem its financial losses in a world where the Internet has dramatically altered how we communicate and pay our bills.
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"Our financial condition is urgent," Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe declared Wednesday.
The way the Postal Service describes it, the move allows the service to change with the times in hopes of eventually operating in the black.
But efforts by the service to make cutbacks before have been stymied by Congress.
Some questions and answers about the Postal Service plan:
Q: What is the plan and when would it take effect?
A: Beginning in early August, mail would be delivered to homes and businesses only from Monday through Friday but would still be delivered to post office boxes on Saturdays.
Post offices now open on Saturdays would remain open and delivery of packages of all sizes would continue six days a week.
Packages have been a bright spot for the agency. Package delivery has increased by 14 percent since 2010, officials said, while the delivery of letters and other mail has plummeted.
Q: Why has the Postal Service decided to cut back its delivery schedule?
The Postal Service suffered a $15.9 billion loss in the past budget year and has forecast more red ink in 2013. It says it expects to save $2 billion annually with the Saturday cutback. The Postal Service, an agency independent of government, does not receive tax money for its operations but is subject to congressional control over major aspects.
The majority of the service's red ink comes from a 2006 law forcing it to pay about $5.5 billion a year into future retiree health benefits, something no other agency does. Without that payment -- $11.1 billion in a two-year installment last year -- and related labor expenses, the mail agency sustained an operating loss of $2.4 billion for the past fiscal year, lower than the previous year.
The Postal Service is in the midst of a major restructuring throughout its retail, delivery and mail-processing operations. Since 2006, it has cut annual costs by about $15 billion, reduced the size of its career workforce by 193,000, or 28 percent, and consolidated more than 200 mail-processing locations, officials say.
Q: What has been the reaction to the plan?
A: It has been met with vigorous objections from farmers, the letter carriers' union and plenty of lawmakers.
Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich called it "bad news for Alaskans and small business owners," who he said need timely delivery to rural areas.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she was disappointed, questioned the savings estimate and worried that the loss of Saturday service might drive customers away.
"The Postal Service is the linchpin of a $1 trillion mailing and mail-related industry that employs more than 8 million Americans in fields as diverse as direct mail, printing, catalog companies, magazine and newspaper publishing and paper manufacturing," she said. "A healthy Postal Service is not just important to postal customers but also to our national economy."
Despite that opposition, the Postal Service clearly thinks it has a majority of the American public on its side. The service's market research indicates that nearly 7 in 10 people support the switch as a way to reduce costs, Donahoe said.
And two Republican lawmakers said they had sent a letter to leaders of the House and Senate in support of the elimination of Saturday mail. It is "common-sense reform," wrote Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Q: Can the Postal Service really make this change?
A: It thinks so. Over the past several years, the Postal Service has advocated shifting to a five-day delivery schedule for mail and packages -- and it repeatedly but unsuccessfully has appealed to Congress to approve the move.
The proposed change is based on what appears to be a legal loophole. Congress has long included a ban on five-day-only delivery in its spending bills, but because the federal government is now operating under a temporary spending measure rather than an appropriations bill, the Postal Service's Donahoe says it's the agency's interpretation that it can make the change itself.
"This is not like a `gotcha' or anything like that," he said. The agency essentially wants Congress to keep the ban out of any new spending bill after the temporary measure expires March 27.
Might Congress try to block the idea?
"Let's see what happens," Donahoe said. "I can't speak for Congress."
Q. What do regular mail customers think?
A. Reaction has been mixed, with some people criticizing the decision and others saying it would have little or no impact on them.
"It is bad news, a bad decision, let me tell you," Konstantine Christov, 73, said while riding the El train in Chicago. "You can read the mail much more quietly on Saturday. I get news from my bank. I can plan for next week. If I need to pay my bills I have more time to do it."
"The mail isn't that important to me anymore. ... I don't sit around waiting for it to come," said James Valentine, the owner of an antiques shop in Toledo, Ohio. "It's a sign of the times. ... It's not like anyone writes letters anymore."