Pittsburgh protesters back Saturday mail service

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Sabrina Polites got a job with the U.S. Postal Service 15 years ago because, as a single mother of three, she needed the benefits that came with a good-paying union job. She started as a clerk in a post office in Michigan, but when budget cuts came five years later, she was downsized out of the desk position. She ended up moving to Greene County in Pennsylvania, where she transitioned into a job as a letter carrier.

Some might find delivering hundreds of letters, catalogs and packages in every imaginable weather a tough way to make a living, but not Ms. Polites, whose busy city route has her walking more than 6 miles a day.

"I love it, just love it," she said of the job she has held for 10 years, her face breaking into a giant smile.

She also is worried she might not be able to hold onto it.

In February, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced that the financially struggling USPS, which lost $16 billion last year, would drop to five days of mail delivery beginning in August in an effort to trim costs -- a measure that critics, including Ms. Polites, say would cost thousands of jobs across the U.S.

So Sunday, she decided to protest.

The Carmichaels resident was among the nearly 200 postal workers and union supporters who crowded into an empty lot across the street from the General Mail Facility on the North Side for the "Delivering for America" rally. Wearing T-shirts and carrying signs, the group waved at cars that drove by on California Avenue and honked in support. They also banged drums before a series of speakers took to the stage (actually, they stood on the back of a pickup).

The hourlong event Sunday was one in a series of nationwide rallies sponsored by the Association of Letter Carriers. At issue, said organizer Paul Rozzi, president of Local 332 in McKeesport, are the loss of about 80,000 postal service jobs, including those of 22,000 letter carriers.

"Ninety-five percent of the Postal Service's revenue comes from business, and 30 percent of businesses say they cannot operate without Saturday service," he said. "Who would go against that?"

By stopping Saturday delivery of letters, the Postal Service -- an independent agency not funded by taxpayers -- estimates it will save $2 billion a year toward the $20 billion shortfall facing the nation's mail service between now and 2016. Packages still will be delivered six days a week, and so will mail to post office boxes; post office counters also will remain open Saturdays.

The Postal Service believes the new schedule would respond to the customers' changing tastes and needs: package delivery has increased by 14 percent since 2010, officials say, while the delivery of letters and other mail has declined with the growing use of email and other Internet services.

Mr. Rozzi begs to differ. He and several of the rally's other speakers, which included state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park; U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills; and labor activist Ken Love, pastor at Kerr Presbyterian Church in Penn Hills, say it's a funding issue -- specifically, a 2006 congressional mandate that makes the service prepay for future employee health benefits over a 10-year period that won't be due for decades.

"We're paying 75 years into the future. It's costing us between $5.5 billion to $5.8 billion a year, and because we're overfunded, it just sits there," Mr. Rozzi said. "But rather than fix that, they just want to cut delivery. It's counterproductive."

The postal service, he added, is working on a business model that predates technology but could be fixed.

Others raised concerns about the cutbacks hurting elderly customers who depend on getting get medications by mail, and rural customers who sometimes don't see anyone on weekends except their letter carriers. Business owners also would be shortchanged. Netflix, for instance, only delivers by mail, said Kathy Schubert, a carrier from Uniontown.

"There's some madness going on, and it's not March Madness," said Frank Snyder, secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

"The postmaster keeps saying 'Cut back.' We say, "Fight back,' " agreed Mr. Ferlo, who called the Postal Service "the bedrock of our democracy from Ben Franklin."

The five-day delivery plan is awaiting President Barack Obama's signature.

Earl Smith of Hiller, Fayette County, who has been a carrier for almost 33 years, says he and many others think many more people want six-day delivery than proponents of the plan would have you believe. He also thinks getting rid of Saturday mail service is an attack on the future of the post office.

"We believe once they go to five, then maybe they'll go to four and then three and then who knows?" he said.

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Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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