WASHINGTON — The Postal Service plans to end Saturday mail delivery beginning in August, a sign that the long-suffering agency finally may be succumbing to e-commerce.
Postmaster General and chief executive Patrick R. Donahoe said at a news conference Wednesday that moving to a five-day delivery week starting the week of Aug. 5 is a necessary cut because of the Postal Service's accumulating deficits.
The plan drew immediate criticism along with some praise from members of Congress, and the White House pledged to review the decision. But it's unclear whether the blowback will make much difference. Last year, the Senate passed legislation to prevent the Postal Service from moving to a five-day delivery week for two years in part, to keep the trusted institution alive in an election year but the House never acted on it.
"We are simply not in a financial position where we can maintain six days of mail delivery," said Donahoe. The ease of online bill payments has led to the decline of first-class mail volume since 2008 a major blow to the institution, he said.
In the past fiscal year, the Postal Service has seen a financial loss of $15.9 billion. Cutting Saturday service will save it $2 billion annually, and it needs $20 billion to repay debts.
The financial loss coupled with the service's loss of 22 percent to 25 percent of its mail volume over the past three years prompted the reduction to a five-day delivery service, said Augustine Ruiz, postal spokesman for the Sacramento and Bay-Valley district in California.
The rest of the Postal Service's Saturday operations will continue as normal; post offices and P.O. boxes will remain open and all packages and expedited mail still will be delivered.
"I think the American people and probably the readers understand what's going on," Ruiz said. "This is not a new story. The Postal Service has gone to Congress for the last few years now asking for flexibility in operating its own business plan. I really don't think anyone will be severely impacted."
The service says it has been trying to reduce costs for years, cutting its work force by more than 193,000 and reducing its cost base by about $15 billion since 2006.
The reductions have proved no match for the decline in mail volume. A Quinnipiac University poll from 2011 released Wednesday says 79 percent of U.S. residents support ending Saturday mail deliveries.
It's estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 carriers will lose their jobs because of the cut, said Richard Gallegos, vice president of the Fresno Area American Postal Workers Union.
Ruiz said he expects the numbers to be closer to 22,000 workers. And those, he said, mostly would come from natural attrition.
In the Sacramento district, which stretches from the Oregon border to Fresno, there are 3,727 delivery personnel, a combination of letter and rural carriers. Ruiz said it is too early to tell how many of those jobs would be affected.
When she heard the news, Modesto resident Tracy Cramer was worried about the potential job loss more than the loss of a delivery day. "I'm sure it means some will lose hours or jobs, which is unfortunate, but for me, it will be great, as I'm not home often on weekends and have to have my mail held," she said.
Others were relieved that packages still will be delivered and that P.O. boxes and post offices will remain open. And still others felt the loss of Saturdays was actually a gain.
"Big deal. That's one less day I have to receive bills," said Matthew Bennett of Ceres.
The Postal Service has been examining other cost-cutting options for years. In 2011, it launched a study to close 252 of 487 mail processing facilities across the country. The consolidations shut down a 30-person delivery distribution center in Modesto last year. A 360-employee Stockton plant is in the process of shutting down and should be closed by the end of the year.
There's still hope for the Postal Service, Ruiz said. Direct-mail advertising is much more effective than any online equivalent, he said, and packaging and delivery volumes have increased by 14 percent since 2010.
"While more and more people have been buying and purchasing things online, someone still has to deliver it," Ruiz said. "So far, no one has figured out how to e-mail a sweater."