Postal workers saw us through 2020 at enormous cost to their own health and safety. “The USPS carried out its mission despite more than 23,000 postal employees testing positive for COVID-19 and tens of thousands additional workers, up to 19,000 on some days, being under quarantine and away from work due to exposure,” reported the American Postal Workers Union at the close of a pandemic year that saw more than 100 postal workers lose their lives to COVID-related symptoms.
Despite all the challenges and all the demands posed by the pandemic, and despite the relentless efforts of the Trump administration and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, to disable and dismantle this essential service, postal workers delivered the medicines that saved lives and the ballots that saved democracy to more than 160 million American addresses in 2020.
Yet the Postal Service enters 2021 as a vulnerable institution. “As this pandemic stretches on and we get beyond the challenge of timely processing and delivery of tens of millions of mail ballots, it’s easy to forget about postal workers and to think that they will always be there, every day, steadily delivering billions of items of mail, medicine, ballots and packages,” says APWU President Mark Dimondstein. “But, the fact is, we can only continue our mission with the public’s support.”
In 2021, President-elect Biden and the Congress must not just save the postal service—by embracing Representative Mark Pocan’s push for new USPS leadership and by providing funding to sustain the service in this pandemic moment—but move to dramatically expand it.
To put the USPS on solid financial footing, Congress should ease the crushing burden created by a requirement that it prepay billions of dollars in retiree health care costs decades into the future. “This,” the APWU recalls, “is an expense not required of any other employer—public or private—and accounts for nearly 90 percent of the USPS’ structural deficit.”
Then Biden and the Congress should work to implement bold proposals from stalwart defenders of the USPS—such as Pocan and Senator Bernie Sanders—to let the Postal Service provide more service.
They can start with “postal banking” reforms that would allow the Postal Service to provide basic financial services—something the USPS did until 1967, and that postal services in other countries do to this day. A robust postal banking program would benefit underserved communities and the 14.1 million American adults who are “unbanked” because of poverty, isolation, and the systemic injustices that define this country’s private banking system.
Biden and the Democrats should also permit the USPS to develop new services. It is absurd, as Sanders notes, that “currently, it is against the law for workers in the post offices to make copies of documents, deliver wine or beer and wrap Christmas presents.” Sanders and Pocan would also reinstate overnight delivery and improve service standards as part of a smart and necessary modernization program.
Arguing that “the beauty of the Postal Service is that it provides universal service six days a week to every corner of America, no matter how small or how remote,” Sanders says Congress should “save and strengthen the Postal Service, not dismantle it.”
The need to strengthen the USPS is not new. But after we all saw just how essential postal workers are to the health and safety, to the economy and the democracy, of the United States, there should be no debate about the vital importance of supercharging the Postal Service in 2021.