USPS in Crisis-Management Mode

For its fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the U.S. Postal Service lost $1.65 billion. And that was before anthrax was found in the mail stream. Now the USPS has to spend more money it doesn’t have on safety gear, while contending with the post-Sept. 11 economic woes that have led to a 5% decline in revenue.

Some help is already on the way for the Postal Service. On Oct. 23, President Bush authorized $175 million in emergency funds for the USPS. Nonetheless, on Nov. 8, Postmaster General Jack Potter asked Congress for more funding — more than $5 billion. Potter compares the USPS’s problems to those of the airline and insurance industries — both of which also have turned to the government for help following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s about time,” Gene Del Polito, president of the Arlington, VA-based Association for Postal Commerce, says of Potter’s upcoming request. The expense of the equipment necessary to ensure the safety of the mail is “a cost that Congress should be prepared to pay, because the USPS isn’t going to get it from rate payers.”

Just days after Potter let it be known that he planned to ask for more funds, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) informally requested that Congress give as much as $1.5 billion to the USPS to help finance its defense against mail contamination.

Potter says the USPS plans to obtain machinery that uses infrared rays and other technology to sanitize mail before postal workers handle it. The agency, which hoped to begin acquiring the machines at press time, needs the congressional funds to buy them.

On top of the funding for new equipment, the USPS needs money to make up for a 10% drop in mail volume since the first anthrax incidents occurred in October, which amounts to $500 million in lost revenue. USPS revenue estimates for the Sept. 5-Oct. 8 period came in $300 million below pre-Sept. 11 projections. While Priority Mail volume dropped 15% during that period, Standard Mail, the bulk mail method by which most catalogs are sent, fell 11% over the same period last year.

In the meantime, the USPS is installing vacuuming equipment for cleaning the sorting machines, while postal facilities will use stronger, antibacterial cleaning chemicals as part of routine maintenance. The agency is also providing employees who process mail with optional masks and gloves, and it is establishing field command centers to quickly identify patterns of any reported medical problems.

Anthrax hoaxes abound

The Postal Service has had its hands full of anthrax hoaxes. On Nov. 5, for instance, a postal worker in Falmouth, VA, was arrested and charged with lacing bulk mail with a “suspicious white powder,” later found to be baby powder. The facility was temporarily closed, causing a “significant delay” in mail delivery, according to the USPS.

As of early November, employees in more than 350 postal facilities have been evacuated from their places of work at some point as a result of 8,674 hoaxes, threats, and suspicious mail incidents since the anthrax was first found in the mail.

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