Your Mailbox Could Be Opened Up To Private Carriers

Feb 2, 2019
Originally published on February 10, 2019 12:44 pm

By law, only you and the U.S. Postal Service are allowed to put things in your mailbox. But what if companies like FedEx and UPS could do it too?

That could happen under a recommendation by the Trump administration.

A White House task force said in December that USPS should "explore franchising the mailbox as a means of generating revenue."

The Postal Service could use the cash.

It's been losing money for years, including a $3.9 billion loss in fiscal 2018. It's no surprise. People are mailing fewer letters — first-class volume dropped by 2.1 billion pieces last year. To help offset that drop, USPS raised stamp prices by 5 cents in January — its largest increase ever.

And the Postal Service is still struggling to pay $5.5 billion each year in future retiree benefits.

By allowing access to private companies for a fee, the agency could earn cash without making changes to its current products, the task force says. The proposal did not name any specific companies, but it brings firms like FedEx and the United Parcel Service to mind.

Those companies currently leave small packages on your doorstep instead of your mailbox because USPS has a mailbox monopoly — and has for decades.

In 1934, during the Great Depression, Congress enacted a law prohibiting anyone from putting their hands in mailboxes — except for the Postal Service and the customer to whom it was delivering the mail. The law — aimed at clamping down on people skimping on postage — has been in effect ever since.

(So yes, even dropping a note in your neighbor's mailbox is technically a crime.)

The scope of the mailbox monopoly has been tested from time to time. The Supreme Court even heard a 1981 case about it and upheld its constitutionality.

If the Trump administration's recommendation is implemented, it "would be a new way of the Postal Service operating its exclusive control over everyone's mailboxes — no doubt about that," Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Robert Taub says.

Taub, a Trump appointee who heads the independent agency that oversees the Postal Service, says the recommendation wouldn't have come about if the agency wasn't in such a dire financial state.

"Although we would have to review the details, as long as we could get along with the conditions, we would look at it as a positive step" to boost revenue, Taub says.

Others, like Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, say franchising the mailbox would actually take money from the Postal Service.

Transportation analysts have said giving mailbox access to companies like UPS and FedEx would allow them to serve their customers faster — simply by shaving off the time it takes for a courier to walk to someone's doorstep, particularly in rural areas.

But Dimondstein, whose union represents more than 200,000 USPS workers and retirees, says customers might begin to choose private carriers to deliver small parcels instead of the Postal Service, thinking their services have become faster.

There are plenty of other ways to increase revenue — like decreasing the "unfair burden" of pre-funding future employees' retirement, he says. "Some of these future employees haven't even been born yet." Or the Postal Service could be allowed to provide a greater array of financial services, such as expanding money order and check-cashing services, Dimondstein says.

Under its universal service obligation, the Postal Service serves more than 157 million addresses throughout the U.S. Unlike other carriers, USPS delivers everywhere — like Anaktuvuk Pass in the farthest reaches of northern Alaska. Each piece of mail is flown in and out of the remote town. For its 300 or so residents, the post office is a crucial link to the outside world.

And places as rural and isolated as Anaktuvuk Pass are hard for UPS or FedEx fleets to reach. Dimondstein says these companies pay the Postal Service to ship their own parcels "millions and millions" times a week rather than deal with logistics themselves.

"Why? Because they cannot make money going to where that package is going," he says.

A spokesperson for FedEx declined to provide a comment to NPR. David Abney, the CEO of UPS, has said he's willing to look into accessing mailboxes once more details become available.

But some say the Postal Service and other companies are beyond comparison. A majority of Americans trust the agency more than any other. For one, letter carriers are beloved by the communities they serve.

"If you move, the post office will find you and they'll get you your letters and they'll get you your package. And FedEx and UPS won't do that," says Cassey Francis, a hairdresser from Iowa. She grew up the daughter of two letter carriers.

"Even though it may seem from time to time that the post office isn't the most efficient," Francis says, "they're really doing an incredible thing."

If the administration wants to have a further say in Postal Service matters, President Trump could appoint some members to the Postal Board of Governors. They have the real power in implementing change to the agency — and there are seven vacancies.

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It's no secret that the U.S. Postal Service has been losing money for years. Its recent 5-cent price hike was the largest ever for stamps. Now the Trump administration thinks it's found another new way to make money - selling access to your mailbox to private companies like FedEx or UPS. NPR's Emily Sullivan reports.

EMILY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In the midst of the Great Depression, people were trying to skimp on postage by hand-dropping letters into mailboxes. The Postal Service took a big hit, so Congress enacted something called the mailbox monopoly. By law, postal service carriers and you are the only people allowed to place letters in your mailbox.


SULLIVAN: So, yes, dropping a note in your neighbor's mailbox is actually a crime. It has been for decades. And now the Trump administration is eyeing the Postal Service's monopoly. In a December report, the White House task force on the Postal Service suggested opening the mailbox up to private companies. The way it would work is that the Postal Service would allow private companies mailbox access for a fee.

ROBERT TAUB: Given the Postal Service's financial balance sheet math, we've got to do everything we can, it seems to me, to protect and preserve and sustain this national treasure of ours.

SULLIVAN: That's Postal Regulatory Committee (ph) Chairman Robert Taub. The Trump appointee heads the independent agency that oversees the Postal Service. The agency has racked up losses for more than a decade. You might remember these dire headlines.


MORGAN BRENNAN: First-class mail continues to fall, and retiree costs balloon.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The ailing U.S. Postal Service is bleeding millions of dollars every hour.

SULLIVAN: One reason - it has all these massive costs. The agency must pay its workers retiree benefits decades into the future, costing it $5.5 billion each year. Another reason for all those costs - unlike other carriers, they deliver everywhere. The Postal Service delivers to more than 157 million addresses throughout the U.S., like Anaktuvuk Pass in the furthest reaches of northern Alaska.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Arctic Wilderness. Vast, lonely yet hauntingly beautiful.

SULLIVAN: There are no roads there. Every piece of mail is flown in and out. Its post office is one of the only links to the outside world. Mark Dimondstein is the president of the American Postal Workers Union. He says UPS and FedEx themselves put millions of packages a week onto Postal Service planes and trucks. Why?

MARK DIMONDSTEIN: Because they cannot make money going to where that package is going.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rather than deal with logistics, UPS or FedEx will pay the Postal Service to take their packages headed to rural areas, like northern Alaska. Delivering mail straight to your mailbox would be a benefit to these companies. Right now, UPS or FedEx carriers can't stick a package in a postal mailbox, so they spend extra time walking up and down those driveways. This proposal would mean faster delivery, especially in rural areas. And Dimondstein suspects more people will choose to spend their money with those other companies if the mailbox opens up.

DIMONDSTEIN: This proposal would actually take revenue outside of the post office.

SULLIVAN: But some Americans say the Postal Service is just different. There's a sense of nostalgia and affection. Americans know their postal carrier, often by name.

CASEY FRANCIS: You know, they're really doing an incredible thing. It's extremely complex, and it's kind of amazing that they get things to your door.

SULLIVAN: That's Casey Francis (ph), a hairdresser from Iowa and a self-described Postal Service nerd. She's the daughter of two postal carriers.

FRANCIS: If you move, the post office will find you. And they'll get you your letters, and they'll get you your package. And FedEx and UPS won't do that.

SULLIVAN: For now, the Trump administration's suggestion is just a suggestion. Why? More than half of the Postal Board of Governors' positions are vacant, and that board has the power to make changes. Emily Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.