For years, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has been operating in marginalized neighborhoods and spaces, including communities of color and rural areas, offering reliable and cheap mail service, money orders, and federal jobs.
And today, even though its employees are deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, USPS is facing extreme financial challenges and a president who wants to privatize it. In fact, the Postal Service has been experiencing such steep financial decline for so many years, that some estimate that by September, it may no longer be here. Amazingly, the Postal Service was left out of the CARES-trillion dollar financial relief package offered to other essential businesses, only being offered a loan to stay afloat.
According to its 2019 fiscal year report, the Postal Service had a net loss of $8.8 billion last year and is still $11 billion in debt. Its financial decline and debt crisis began prior to the coronavirus pandemic, going back to 2006 when the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was passed by a majority Republican-led Congress during the George W. Bush administration. The PAEA bill required the USPS to provide funds for employee retirement and pensions at least 70 years in advance. No other corporation has ever been mandated to make this pre-payment. Since 2012, USPS has defaulted on its prepayments every year as a way to avoid bankruptcy.
Although the Postal Service is a service mandated by the U.S. Constitution, USPS hasn’t been given any monetary support from the federal government. On April 9, the USPS asked for $89 billion in relief funds. If that seems like a lot of money, consider that the USPS pays $2 billion in salaries and benefits to its employees every two weeks. Its request for financial support was not met with cash but instead with access to loans. The Trump administration deliberately excluded the USPS from the coronavirus financial relief bill, saying that the president would not sign the trillion-dollar bill if it included funds for the Postal Service. Instead, on May 6, Trump appointed Louis DeJoy, a large fundraiser for his presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee, as the new postmaster general, yet another nail in the coffin of the union-strong organization, and leading to suspicions of plans of trying to privatize the mail agency and increase its prices for services.
If USPS becomes privatized, it would most likely proceed with a large sweep of layoffs, hurting millions and their families, who rely on the 228-year old organization for employment and health benefits.
The United States Postal Service is one of the largest employers of people of color and women in the U.S. Out of a workforce of over 7.3 million USPS workers, 40 percent of USPS employees are people of color with Black people making up over 20 percent of their non-white employees. Forty percent of USPS workers also identify as female. For people of color and women, the USPS provides living wages for workers, allowing them to enter the working class. According to CNN, governmental data shows that USPS letter carriers make an average salary of $51,390 a year. USPS mail sorters make an average annual salary of $48,380. If the USPS shuts down, many people of color will lose their jobs and their paychecks, their benefits, and their stability.
In addition, its continued delivery services of packages and mail to all corners of the U.S. places USPS employees at risk of contracting the coronavirus. Currently, there have been over 1,200 COVID-19 cases among USPS employees due to a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and the inability for employees to perform their duties remotely. USPS issued a statement on April 30, saying that it will be updating its cleaning policy and ensuring that employees are provided with masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies. However, without monetary help from the government, USPS might not have the funds to give its staff and customers the support they need.
And people of color don’t just occupy USPS’ workforce. They, along with low-income and disabled folks, also rely on USPS’ services, which have remained low-cost, especially in comparison to its private counterparts. With so many retail stores shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, USPS’ delivery provides access to essential supplies.
Many people of color, especially Black and Latinx folks who live in poor, rural communities, use USPS’ last-mile deliveries to get crucial materials such as face masks. Black and Latinx people with disabilities, who make up over 55 percent of the disabled community, also rely on USPS for affordable delivery of necessities like medication. For Indigenous folks who live on remote lands, USPS is a direct connection between their communities and other people throughout the United States. Many people of color also use USPS locations to have access to government services such as passport applications. According to USPS, 6.6 million passport applications were accepted at Post Offices in 2019. For those who don’t have bank accounts or want a secure transfer and/or payment of funds, USPS has often been the cheap and reliable way to send widely-accepted, affordable money orders that never expire.
In a time where many businesses are shutting down, the Postal Service needs material support now more than ever. Though seemingly unimaginable, the USPS’ closure will dramatically push people of color further into the margins, losing the things they need for survival, from fast and dependable communication with loved ones to basic necessities to decent jobs and benefits.
There are two solutions here: rollback the PAEA bill and/or provide federal financial support to keep the Postal Service alive. The government needs to step up and ensure that people of color are not left behind once again.