In revamping the U.S. Postal Service, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has left post offices alone.

Last year, a presidential commission suggested 35 ways to make the Postal Service a leaner, more efficient organization, better prepared to tackle its billions in debt. Among the ideas: fewer employees and picking offices to be shuttered, base closure-style.

Collins, as chair of a congressional subcommittee, has reviewed the commission’s report. A reform bill recently introduced by Collins and Senate colleague Tom Carper, D-Delaware, specifically avoids closures.

Collins’ staffers said the senator decided to let the Postal Service make its own decisions on scaling back, instead of having Congress do it.

Maine has 435 post offices and more than 3,600 employees. The Postal Service is the seventh largest employer in Maine, behind the likes of Hannaford, Wal-Mart and Bath Iron Works.

Postmasters, clerks and mail sorters here earn $1 to $8 more an hour than the average job in Maine, according to the Department of Labor.

The commission’s suggestions had union workers wondering whether small, money-losing post offices would be targeted for closure by eventual legislation. About half of the ones in Maine fit that definition.

Because Collins’ bill doesn’t embrace those ideas, the Postal Service stays flexible enough to react to shifting populations and mail volume, said Gerry McKiernan, a postal spokesman in Washington, D.C.

Case in point: At the same time the Postal Service is starting to build a distribution facility in Scarborough, one in Alta Vista, Calif., is being mothballed, he said. (That new facility in Maine had been slated for Lewiston or Auburn at one point.)

Nationwide, the Postal Service says it has shed 45,000 employees in the last year, all through retirement or attrition.

In her speech on the Senate floor last week, when she reintroduced the legislation, Collins said the Postal Service is running the risk of a “death spiral”: decreasing volume, which leads to higher rates, which leads to even lower volume.

“The Postal Service has reached a critical juncture. If we are to save and strengthen this vital service upon which so many Americans rely for communication and their livelihoods, the time to act is now,” she said.

Proposals in the Collins-Carper bill include:

• Changing the way postal rates are set. For instance, it’s currently a rigorous, yearlong process to increase the price of a first-class stamp. The bill would make way for smaller, more regular increases, tied to the consumer price index.

If passed quickly, it would likely head off a recently requested 5 to 6 percent increase, McKiernan said. If that moves forward, a stamp would go from 37 to 39 cents.

• Changing the workers compensation system. Injured postal workers are currently allowed to collect up to 75 percent of their wages, tax-free and with cost of living increases, until they choose to retire. A government review found the oldest recipient of workers compensation benefits was 102. Under the bill, workers would be bumped into retirement at 65.

• Redirecting an overpayment to the Civil Service Retirement Fund. Collins’ staff said that move should start to whittle away at the Postal Service’s $70 billion to $80 billion unfunded liability – money it knows it will owe in the future and can’t cover. Most of those costs are related to health care.

The legislation will go to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees in mid-April, where it’s expected to be passed onto the Senate.

According to its Web site, the American Postal Workers Union of Maine says it opposes some aspects of the bill. President David Greenlaw could not be reached for comment.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.