COVID-19 pushes Postal Service’s finances to the brink

COVID-19 pushes Postal Service’s finances to the brink
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Millions of Americans are relying on the U.S. Postal Service for key supplies while they isolate themselves to slow the spread of COVID-19. But the Postal Service itself faces uncertain times ahead, as the economic fallout of the pandemic and hostility from the Trump administration threaten to hobble it.

“At a time when America needs the Postal Service more than ever, the reason we are so needed is having a devastating effect on our business,” U.S. Postmaster General and CEO Megan J. Brennan said earlier this month. “Sales are plummeting as a result of the pandemic. The sudden drop in mail volumes, our most profitable revenue stream, is steep and may never fully recover.”

The pandemic could decrease the Post Office’s revenue by more than $22 billion over the next 18 months, and by more than $54 billion in the long term, she added. The drop in income, Brennan said, “threaten[s] our ability to operate.”

As dire as those warnings are, they are also increasingly common in Washington. All kinds of major institutions, from airlines to farmers to state governments, are hoping for financial relief from the federal government, as Congress considers what further steps it should take to keep the economy from completely seizing up while workers stay at home and non-essential businesses are shut down.

Congress, in fact, has already authorized a $10 billion loan for the Postal Service in a March economic rescue package, but the Trump administration has to approve the loan first.

Supporters of the Postal Service, including its employee unions, argue that getting the agency back on its feet should be a top priority for Congress.

“A collapse of the Postal Service at this crucial moment would severely undermine both our fight to defeat the COVID-19 virus as well as the effort to stabilize our economy,” said Fredric Rolando, the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers. The mail system delivers 1.2 billion prescription drug shipments a year, not to mention testing equipment that is vital for diagnosing who has the disease. Plus, letter carriers deliver valuable government documents from stimulus checks to mail-in ballots.

“In vast swathes of rural America and economically struggling urban areas, the Postal Service is the only option — the private companies rely on the USPS for last mile delivery,” Rolando added. (By law, the Postal Service must provide universal access to all Americans, and the number of destinations it must serve has increased in recent years even as mail volumes have declined.)

Amid the pandemic, the Virginia Department of Elections is urging voters to vote absentee in the May and June elections.

The reliance on mailed ballots could increase even further for the November general election, particularly as Democrats on Capitol Hill have pushed to make voting by mail easier. The White House has resisted those calls, and President Donald Trump, who cast his own vote by mail, has called voting by mail a “terrible thing.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.