Fighting over the numbers

By Bill McAllister, Washington Correspondent

What the United States Postal Service continues to see as more bad news, the major postal unions are claiming is good news.

On May 9, the Postal Service announced it had recorded “a net loss” of $1.9 billion in the quarter that ended March 31.

It is “the 20th of the last 22 quarters it has sustained a loss,” the Postal Service said.

The same day, Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letters Carriers, said that the USPS had recorded “a quarterly operating profit of $261 million.”

Its operating profit for the first half of the current fiscal year was more than $1 billion, he said.

Both the USPS and Rolando are citing numbers from the Postal Service’s latest financial report. The key difference is whether the accounting places future health care costs above the bottom line — or below it.

The Postal Service says those costs — totaling more than $5 billion a year — must be considered.

The unions argue those are costs no other federal agency has to pay, and that the rebounding health of the Postal Service is distorted by including them.

“The truth is that the Postal Service’s well-publicized financial crisis is a manufactured one,” asserted the American Postal Workers Union after the USPS issued its latest financial report.

Like the letter carriers, the APWU says Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and his bean counters are insisting on showing a bleak financial picture for the USPS in hopes of getting Congress to grant it relief from that 2006 law that requires the USPS to prefund the health benefits for its retirees.

Donahoe’s plans for the USPS are nothing but “a thinly-veiled attempt at piecemeal privatization,” says the APWU.

The unions want to derail Donahoe’s continuing downsizing efforts and argue the new numbers show USPS is making a comeback. This is not the time to shrink the Postal Service, the unions say.

USPS officials counter that their assertion that the agency remains in serious financial trouble is the only accurate reading anyone should give the latest financial numbers from L’Enfant Plaza.

By their accounting, the USPS remains in “a deep financial hole,” saddled with billions in costs that it can no longer pay with stamp revenues.

Joseph Corbett, the Postal Service’s chief financial officer, told The Washington Post that it is “just not accurate” to describe the $261 million figure as an operating income or a profit.

Mail volume, especially first-class mail, continues to drop, although overall revenues climbed slightly to $16.7 billion, from $16.4 billion in the same quarter of 2013.

The bottom line, they say, is the USPS lost $1.9 billion in the quarter, the same size loss it recorded a year earlier.

For the first half, the new loss is $2.2 billion, compared to $3.1 billion in fiscal 2013.

That is perhaps a small improvement, the executives concede, but the USPS needs Congress to give it a new way of paying off its retiree obligations and to continue shrinking the agency to handle its decreased letter volume.

It is a fight the unions are promising to press.

After all, Rolando has noted repeatedly that the USPS seems likely to post a $1.1 billion “operating profit” for the year ending Sept. 30.