Postal workers urge Berg to back House bill

Richard Vetter, right, an employee at a Fargo post office attends a rally Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, at Rep. Rick Berg's office to encourage him to sign on to bill H.R. 1351, which would transfer surplus funds from the Postal Service's retirement accounts to meet other financial obligations. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO – Local postal workers want Rep. Rick Berg to sign on to legislation that they say could resolve the U.S. Postal Service’s fiscal fiasco.

More than 50 postal workers, letter carriers and supporters rallied outside Berg’s district office here Tuesday to urge the North Dakota Republican to support House bill 1351.

The measure would change how the postal service funds employee retirement plans, a solution supporters say might lead to better stability for the USPS as a whole.

The USPS is self-funded, so it doesn’t receive taxpayer dollars.

Since 2006, a congressional mandate has required the postal service to prefund its retirement benefits, which means a cost of $5.5 billion a year.

That mandate is, in part, why the USPS faces massive losses, said Rachel Freehauf, North Dakota’s state president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Freehauf said the House bill would allow USPS to use surplus dollars in its retirement accounts to cover the current deficits, which could return the agency to stable ground.

In comparison, the current track is “a death spiral,” said Freehauf, who’s also a Fargo-area letter carrier.

“They’re proposing all these cuts, to which we’re saying: ‘That’s ridiculous. We don’t need to do that,’” she said. “We just need them to make sense of these accounting errors.”

As of Tuesday evening, 216 House members had co-sponsored bill 1351. Berg wasn’t among them.

His spokeswoman Alee Lockman said Berg supports maintaining postal services for North Dakotans and he’s open to funding reforms – but he’s still reviewing the various proposals that have been introduced in the House.

Rick Berg

“Growing up in Hettinger, Rick understands the importance of reliable mail delivery to rural North Dakota. To save this important service for the long-term, it’s imperative that the United States Postal Service gets back on solid financial footing.

With that in mind, Rick is closely reviewing a variety of plans to save this service, without forcing a multi-billion dollar taxpayer-funded bailout upon America’s families.”

– Alee Lockman, Berg spokeswoman

Democrat Collin Peterson, who represents western Minnesota, signed on to House bill 1351 in June.

In the past four years, USPS has cut annual costs by more than $12 billion and laid off 110,000 employees, but it still faces massive shortfalls.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told Congress this month he estimates USPS could lose as much as $10 billion this fiscal year alone, despite the efforts to cut back.

He’s proposed eliminating Saturday delivery, closing Post Office branches and laying off thousands more workers to make up the losses.

In July, USPS officials announced 3,653 branches could be on the chopping block, including 76 in North Dakota and 88 in Minnesota.

But local postal workers, including Freehauf, said further cuts and closures aren’t the solution.

“It’s going to drive people away,” Freehauf said. “The things they’re proposing to do are going to hurt all the more.”

Diane Fitterer, a distribution clerk at the downtown Fargo processing plant, said the uncertain future of USPS is “nerve-wracking.”

“Without (House bill 1351), the Postal Service very possibly will cease to exist,” Fitterer said. “You wonder if one day you’re going to show up and they’re going to tell us we’ve closed down. You never know what day that might happen.”

The rally Tuesday in Fargo was one of hundreds held nationwide to lobby Congress and raise awareness for the “Save America’s Postal Service” campaign.