In a place like Haswell, Colorado, sometimes the only things moving are cats that have spotted a mouse or shadows nudged by the sun. It is a place where one would have to comb the town’s history pretty carefully to pinpoint just exactly when the ‘good old days’ occurred.
Haswell is a town with a population almost perfectly balanced by births and deaths. It has no industry and its agricultural base changes at glacial pace. It is entirely possible that the town’s halcyon days, like the nearby traffic on Colorado state road 96, simply saw it and kept right on going.
But the one thing that tiny Haswell, about 80 miles east of Pueblo, has always counted on is its post office. It is where townspeople conduct business and, otherwise, stay connected. But soon, like so many other things in Haswell’s history, the post office may simply move on down the road.
Rural post offices in Colorado and across the country have become a luxury that the U.S. Postal Service can no longer afford. The system is hemorrhaging money — billions — and one sure way to stanch the bleeding is to cut workforce, consolidate operations and eliminate post offices, including Haswell.
“It is a little mindboggling,” says David Rupert, a Denver-based regional USPS manager. “Our last quarter’s losses were $3 billion.” At the current pace, USPS is expected to be swimming in $10 billion of red ink by year’s end.
A lot of things have contributed to the post office’s troubles but possibly none like the system’s annual prepayment for employee health benefits, estimated at $5.5 billion this year. “A 2006 Postal law requires us to prefund the next 70 years of health benefits,” Rupert says. This includes paying the health insurance “for people who haven’t even been born yet.”
Also contributing to the staggering imbalance on USPS books is electronic communications — computers. They have thoroughly upended the fiefdom the postal service once ruled. As personal letter writing has all but disappeared, along with catalogue ordering — if anyone remembers that — and on-line bill paying has become simple, convenient and automatic, mail volumes have plunged.
In a four-year period ending in 2010, mail volumes declined by 20 percent. Advertisers, not surprisingly, found it cheaper and faster to use the Internet. Consumers also found other options, including FedEx and UPS, not only price competitive or better but, in some cases, more convenient. Also, during the same period, the U.S. economy struggled. Postal rates were the only constant. It was a recipe for disaster.
But while things appear daunting, the Postal Service is not ready to throw in the towel. It is constantly sharpening its pencil, says Rupert, and looking for ways to cut costs, improve options and give customers what they want. It is either that or become irrelevant and obsolete.
“We have 110,000 fewer employees than we had five years ago,” Rupert says. “We’ve cut costs by more than 25 percent.” It is has also closed some mail processing centers and consolidated others. More than 250 mail processing centers nationwide have been affected in the USPS belt-tightening. It has also implemented half-day hours at scores of small and low-volume sites.
But working against the system are built-in laws that it can’t avoid. “By law, we have to deliver mail six days a week.” That, however, is a luxury that USPS is revisiting. It believes it can still remain a first-class operation in an e-world while cutting off one full day of service — Saturdays.
“That would result in a $3 billion savings,” says the USPS’s Rupert. “There’s an awful lot of time that what you’re delivering on Monday is mail from Saturday. People would adapt.” But Congress, which has not always been as understanding as the postal service would like, would have to adapt first. It calls the shots for USPS.
Some customers, including those who send out mail aimed at a Saturday delivery, wouldn’t be happy. Magazine publishers also like the idea of their product arriving on the weekend. Each is an important postal customers. But they’re not the only ones.
People in towns like Haswell would be upset. “The post office is part of their routine,” says one Haswell customer who asked her name not be used. “People here don’t have computers; don’t use them. These are just plain folks,” she says. “You wouldn’t think it would be devastating, but it would be.” Also, closure would force them to travel to Sugar City, 22 miles away, to conduct business. “A lot of them are elderly. They couldn’t do it.”
But the postal service isn’t going away, especially with millions of Americans dependent on it for movies, prescription drug deliveries and a cheap, easy and nearly guaranteed way of getting a cross-town bill delivered the next day. USPS also delivers to places where no one else even goes.
USPS also serves consumers in places no one even goes or knows; places like Pray, Mo., a town with perhaps the country’s tiniest working post office. Pray boasts a population of 10. Pray — the entire town — is now for sale. Asking price: $1.4 million.
In the meantime, USPS is trying to juggle, improvise or change in any way it can as it tries to find new and convenient ways to appeal to customers. It now allows on-line stamp purchases, electronic tracking of packages and one-price shipping.
It would like Congress to consider boosting its price points, including raising the cost of a first-class stamp. It also believes it can stretch its dollars by lengthening the time for first-class deliveries. Adding one day to deliveries can result in millions in savings. “We’re not sticking our heads in the sand,” Rupert says.
But despite everything it has done to trim the fat, keep mail moving and reinvent itself in an electronic world, USPS is still working on two challenges that have so far been difficult.
It needs to find sympathetic ears in Congress willing to listen and lend a hand in helping it escape the financial whirlpool that threatens to take it under. It also needs to find a fair and equitable middle ground with the union that represents millions of workers and retirees.
Until it does that, it will find itself a target of late-night comedians and a growing legion of critics whose only focus is the bottom line.