Saturday mail may soon go the way of the Pony Express and penny postcards.
The Postal Service said Wednesday that it plans to cut back to five-day-a-week deliveries for everything except packages to stem its financial losses in a world radically re-ordered by the Internet.
“Our financial condition is urgent,” declared Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe.
But Congress has voted in the past to bar the idea of eliminating Saturday delivery, and his announcement immediately drew protests from some lawmakers.
The plan, which is to take effect in August, also brought vigorous objections from the letter carriers’ union.
In South Jersey, the reaction ranged from anger to indifference.
Dick Quackenbush, outside the Brigantine post office Wednesday, was livid about the change. “This country is going to hell in a hand basket,” he said. “I’m glad I’m as old as I am, because I don’t want to be my grandchildren. It’s terrible. It’s getting to be like everybody else’s — like Canada’s.”
But John Carney, who has lived in Northfield for 44 years, estimated that 75 percent of the mail he gets is junk, and he said he won’t miss Saturday delivery. He pays his bills using direct deposit and said he rarely mails a check.
“I have written so few letters over the last 50 years that I’ve forgotten how to spell,” said Carney, who had driven his friend, a visitor from Ireland, to the Northfield post office Wednesday to mail some letters.
Leeann Lahoud, of Egg Harbor Township, who was also at the Northfield post office, said the change wouldn’t be a hardship. “I don’t think it’ll affect me, but I do like having U.S. Postal Service,” she said.
Cindy Colton, of Port Republic, who was at the Pleasantville post office Wednesday, was not overly concerned but said the change would be an inconvenience.
“It doesn’t affect me much, but it would for people who get off of work at 5 or 6,” she said. She said she uses the mail, but not for personal correspondence. “That went by the wayside,” she said. “I like the phone.”
The Postal Service, which suffered a $15.9 billion loss in the past budget year, said it expected to save $2 billion annually with the Saturday cutback. Mail such as letters and magazines would be affected. Delivery of packages of all sizes would continue six days a week.
The plan accentuates one of the agency’s strong points: Package delivery has increased by 14 percent since 2010, officials say, while the delivery of letters and other mail has plummeted. Email has decreased the mailing of paper letters, but online purchases have increased package shipping, forcing the Postal Service to adjust to customers’ new habits.
“Things change,” Donahoe said. The Postal Service has had to adapt to changing times ever since Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general by the Continental Congress in 1775. The Pony Express began in 1860, six-day delivery started in 1863, and airmail became the mode in 1918. Twice-a-day delivery was cut to one in 1950 to save money.
But change is not the biggest factor in the agency’s predicament — Congress is. The majority of the service’s red ink comes from a 2006 law forcing it to pay about $5.5 billion a year into future retiree health benefits, something no other agency does. Without that payment — $11.1 billion in a two-year installment last year — and related labor expenses, the mail agency sustained an operating loss of $2.4 billion for the past fiscal year, lower than the previous year.
Congress also has stymied the service’s efforts to close some post offices in small towns. Under the new plan, mail would be delivered to homes and businesses only from Monday through Friday but would still be delivered to post office boxes on Saturdays. Post offices now open on Saturdays would remain open.
Over the past several years, the Postal Service has advocated shifting to a five-day delivery schedule for mail and packages — and it repeatedly but unsuccessfully has appealed to Congress to approve the move.
An independent agency, the service gets no tax dollars for its day-to-day operations but is subject to congressional control. The proposed change is based on what appears to be a legal loophole — and that may be a gamble.
Congress has long included a ban on five-day-only delivery in its spending bills, but because the federal government is now operating under a temporary spending measure rather than an appropriations bill, Donahoe says it’s the agency’s interpretation that it can make the change itself.
Two Republican lawmakers said they had sent a letter to leaders of the House and Senate in support of the elimination of Saturday mail. It’s “common-sense reform,” wrote Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
But Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich called it “bad news for Alaskans and small business owners,” who he said need timely delivery to rural areas.
President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said the White House learned only Tuesday about the agency’s decision to cut Saturday service. He said the White House is still evaluating the decision but would have preferred its own comprehensive overhaul package that failed to pass Congress last year be adopted “for the sake of a stronger future Postal Service.”
The president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Fredric Rolando, said the cutback is “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers,” particularly businesses, rural communities, the elderly, the disabled and others who depend on Saturday delivery for commerce and communication.
He said the maneuver by Donahoe to make the change “flouts the will of Congress, as expressed annually over the past 30 years in legislation that mandates six-day delivery.”
Staff Writer David Simpson contributed to this report.