Saving the Post Office, Defending Black Workers

June 23, 2020

The Postal Service has historically been an important source of middle-class jobs for Black workers, especially where racial discrimination was strongest in the private sector. This pattern continues to the present.

We previously posted our findings from an analysis of the Current Population Survey (CPS) that showed Black workers are substantially overrepresented among state and local government employees. The share of Black workers in state and local government jobs is 20 percent higher than in the private sector. If budget shortfalls force state and local governments to cut their workforces, Black workers will be disproportionately victimized by the layoffs. It turns out that the situation is similar with employees of the Postal Service. Postal workers are more than twice as likely to be Black as workers in the private sector. Our analysis of the CPS shows that in the three year period from 2017 to 2019, 26.8 percent of Postal Service workers were Black. This compares to 11.5 percent of the private sector workforce during this time period.  As in state and local government, the pay gap between Black and white workers is narrower among those who are employed by the Post Office than among workers in the private sector. 

Like state and local governments, the Postal Service is facing an enormous budget shortfall as a result of the pandemic. It has seen a huge drop in revenue, as mailings were drastically curtailed, especially during shutdown periods. In addition, it has incurred extra expenses associated with keeping its frontline workers safe from COVID-19, while continuing to perform the essential service of delivering the mail. 

Though the Postal Service received a rescue loan as part of the CARES Act earlier this year, it was not enough to completely stave off the threat of insolvency. The Postal Service has requested an additional $75 billion to make up its remaining funding gap. Without intervention, it is in danger of running out of cash after September. This is especially worrisome as states move to expand vote-by-mail to mitigate the effects of the public health crisis on the 2020 election, which is scheduled to take place in November. 

In addition to jeopardizing a service the country depends upon for everything from medicines to democracy, forcing major cutbacks to the Postal Service will be a serious hit to the Black community, possibly depriving tens of thousands of Black workers of relatively good-paying jobs. Those whose positions are not eliminated outright may find their job quality diminished as recent proposals aim to reduce employee benefits. There have also been pushes to expand the agency’s use of noncareer workers, who are not eligible for the same pay and benefits as permanent employees. 

The Trump administration has thus far devoted less attention to a federal law that requires the Postal Service to prefund retiree health benefits through at least 2056. Other parts of government and private corporations are not subject to this requirement, and its imposition explains most of the Postal Service’s accounting losses in recent years. Even with this mandate, depending on the conditions imposed by Congress, the pensions and health care benefits of thousands of Black postal retirees may nevertheless be in jeopardy. 

At a time when the country is reexamining its history of racism and the ways in which racism continues to shape the economy and society, it would be tragic if Congress thoughtlessly struck a hammer blow to the Black middle-class community by forcing large-scale cuts on the Postal Service. Moving forward to reduce the impact of racism will be a long and difficult process. Going backward will only make it harder.

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