United States Postal Service
Logo used since 1993
|Formed||July 1, 1971
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Headquarters||475 L'Enfant Plaza SW
Washington, D.C. 20260-0004
|Employees||639,789 (508,908 career, 130,881 non-career) as of September 30, 2016|
The United States Postal Service (USPS; also known as the Post Office, U.S. Mail, or Postal Service) is an independent agency of the United States federal government responsible for providing postal service in the United States, including its insular areas and associated states. It is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution.
The U.S. Mail traces its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress, when Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. The Post Office Department was created in 1792 from Franklin's operation, elevated to a cabinet-level department in 1872, and transformed in 1971 into the U.S. Postal Service as an independent agency.
The USPS as of February 2015 has 617,254 active employees and operated 211,264 vehicles in 2014. The USPS is the operator of the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world. The USPS is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality. The USPS still has exclusive access to letter boxes marked "U.S. Mail" and personal letterboxes in the United States, but now has to compete against private package delivery services, such as United Parcel Service and FedEx.
Since the early 1980s, many of the direct tax subsidies to the Post Office (with the exception of subsidies for costs associated with the disabled and overseas voters) have been reduced or eliminated in favor of indirect subsidies, in addition to the advantages associated with a government-enforced monopoly on the delivery of first-class mail. Since the 2006 all-time peak mail volume, after which Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (which mandated $5.5 billion per year to be paid into an account to fully prefund employee retirement health benefits, a requirement exceeding that of other government and private organizations), revenue dropped sharply due to recession-influenced declining mail volume, prompting the postal service to look to other sources of revenue while cutting costs to reduce its budget deficit. The USPS lost $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2014 , $5.1 billion in 2015, and $5.6 billion in 2016 and its revenue was $67.8 billion in 2014 and $68.9 billion in 2015.
- 1 History
- 2 Current operations
- 3 Budget
- 3.1 Revenue decline and planned cuts
- 3.2 Retirement funding and payment defaults
- 3.3 Rate increases
- 3.4 Reform packages, delivery changes, and alcohol delivery
- 4 Governance and organization
- 5 Universal service obligation and monopoly status
- 6 Law enforcement agencies
- 7 How delivery services work
- 7.1 Elements of addressing and preparing domestic mail
- 7.2 Paying postage
- 7.3 Other electronic postage payment methods
- 7.4 Service level choices
- 7.5 International services
- 7.6 Sorting and delivery process
- 7.7 Delivery timing
- 8 Financial services
- 9 Employment in the USPS
- 10 In fiction
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
In the early years of the North American colonies, many attempts were made to initiate a postal service. These early attempts were of small scale and usually involved a colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony for example, setting up a location in Boston where one could post a letter back home to England. Other attempts focused on a dedicated postal service between two of the larger colonies, such as Massachusetts and Virginia, but the available services remained limited in scope and disjointed for many years. For example, informal independently-run postal routes operated in Boston as early as 1639, with a Boston to New York City service starting in 1672.
A central postal organization came to the colonies in 1691, when Thomas Neale received a 21-year grant from the British Crown for a North American Postal Service. On February 17, 1691, a grant of letters patent from the joint sovereigns, William III and Mary II, empowered him:
"to erect, settle, and establish within the chief parts of their majesties' colonies and plantations in America, an office or offices for receiving and dispatching letters and pacquets, and to receive, send, and deliver the same under such rates and sums of money as the planters shall agree to give, and to hold and enjoy the same for the term of twenty-one years."
The patent included the exclusive right to establish and collect a formal postal tax on official documents of all kinds. The tax was repealed a year later. Neale appointed Andrew Hamilton, Governor of New Jersey, as his deputy postmaster. The first postal service in America commenced in February 1692. Rates of postage were fixed and authorized, and measures were taken to establish a post office in each town in Virginia. Massachusetts and the other colonies soon passed postal laws, and a very imperfect post office system was established. Neale's patent expired in 1710, when Parliament extended the English postal system to the colonies. The chief office was established in New York City, where letters were conveyed by regular packets across the Atlantic.
Before the Revolution, there was only a trickle of business or governmental correspondence between the colonies. Most of the mail went back and forth to counting houses and government offices in London. The revolution made Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, the information hub of the new nation. News, new laws, political intelligence, and military orders circulated with a new urgency, and a postal system was necessary. Journalists took the lead, securing post office legislation that allowed them to reach their subscribers at very low cost, and to exchange news from newspapers between the thirteen states. Overthrowing the London-oriented imperial postal service in 1774–1775, printers enlisted merchants and the new political leadership, and created a new postal system. The United States Post Office (USPO) was created on July 26, 1775, by decree of the Second Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin headed it briefly.
Before the Revolution, individuals like Benjamin Franklin and William Goddard were the colonial postmasters who managed the mails then and were the general architects of a postal system that started out as an alternative to the Crown Post.
The official post office was created in 1792 as the Post Office Department (USPOD). It was based on the Constitutional authority empowering Congress "To establish post offices and post roads". The 1792 law provided for a greatly expanded postal network, and served editors by charging newspapers an extremely low rate. The law guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence, and provided the entire country with low-cost access to information on public affairs, while establishing a right to personal privacy.
Rufus Easton was appointed by Thomas Jefferson first postmaster of St. Louis under the recommendation of Postmaster General Gideon Granger. Rufus Easton was the first postmaster and built the first post office west of the Mississippi. At the same time Easton was appointed by Thomas Jefferson, judge of Louisiana Territory, the largest territory in North America. Bruce Adamson wrote that: "Next to Benjamin Franklin, Rufus Easton was one of the most colorful people in United States Postal History." It was Easton who educated Abraham Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates. In 1815 Edward Bates moved into the Easton home and lived there for years at Third and Elm. Today this is the site of the Jefferson Memorial Park. In 1806 Postmaster General Gideon Granger wrote a three-page letter to Easton, begging him not to partake in a duel with vice-president Aaron Burr. Two years earlier it was Burr who had shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. Many years later in 1852, Easton's son, Major-General Langdon Cheves Easton, was commissioned by William T. Sherman, at Fort Union to deliver a letter to Independence, Missouri. Sherman wrote: "In the Spring of 1852, General Sherman mentioned that the quartermaster, Major L.C. Easton, at Fort Union, New Mexico, had occasion to send some message east by a certain date, and contracted with Aubrey to carry it to the nearest post office (then Independence, Missouri), making his compensation conditional on the time consumed. He was supplied with a good horse, and an order on the outgoing trains for exchange. Though the whole route was infested with hostile Indians, and not a house on it, Aubrey started alone with his rifle. He was fortunate in meeting several outward-bound trains, and thereby made frequent changes of horses, some four or five, and reached Independence in six days, having hardly rested or slept the whole way."
To cover long distances, the Post Office used a hub-and-spoke system, with Washington as the hub and chief sorting center. By 1869, with 27,000 local post offices to deal with, it had changed to sorting mail en route in specialized railroad mail cars, called Railway Post Offices, or RPOs. The system of postal money orders began in 1864. Free mail delivery began in the larger cities in 1863.
The postal system played a crucial role in national expansion. It facilitated expansion into the West by creating an inexpensive, fast, convenient communication system. Letters from early settlers provided information and boosterism to encourage increased migration to the West, helped scattered families stay in touch and provide assistance, assisted entrepreneurs in finding business opportunities, and made possible regular commercial relationships between merchants in the west and wholesalers and factories back east. The postal service likewise assisted the Army in expanding control over the vast western territories. The widespread circulation of important newspapers by mail, such as the New York Weekly Tribune, facilitated coordination among politicians in different states. The postal service helped integrate established areas with the frontier, creating a spirit of nationalism and providing a necessary infrastructure.
The Post Office in the 19th century was a major source of federal patronage. Local postmasterships were rewards for local politicians—often the editors of party newspapers. About three quarters of all federal civilian employees worked for the Post Office. In 1816 it employed 3341 men, and in 1841, 14,290. The volume of mail expanded much faster than the population, as it carried annually 100 letters and 200 newspapers per 1000 white population in 1790, and 2900 letters and 2700 newspapers per thousand in 1840.
The Post Office Department was enlarged during the tenure of President Andrew Jackson. As the Post Office expanded, difficulties were experienced due to a lack of employees and transportation. The Post Office's employees at that time were still subject to the so-called "spoils" system, where faithful political supporters of the executive branch were appointed to positions in the post office and other government corporations as a reward for their patronage. These appointees rarely had prior experience in postal service and mail delivery. This system of political patronage was replaced in 1883, after passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.
In 1823, ten years after the Post Office had first begun to use steamboats to carry mail between post towns where no roads existed, waterways were declared post roads. Once it became clear that the postal system in the United States needed to expand across the entire country, the use of the railroad to transport the mail was instituted in 1832, on one line in Pennsylvania. All railroads in the United States were designated as post routes, after passage of the Act of July 7, 1838. Mail service by railroad increased rapidly thereafter.
An Act of Congress provided for the issuance of stamps on March 3, 1847, and the Postmaster General immediately let a contract to the New York City engraving firm of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch, and Edson. The first stamp issue of the U.S. was offered for sale on July 1, 1847, in New York City, with Boston receiving stamps the following day and other cities thereafter. The 5-cent stamp paid for a letter weighing less than 1 oz (28 g) and traveling less than 300 miles, the 10-cent stamp for deliveries to locations greater than 300 miles, or twice the weight deliverable for the 5-cent stamp.
In 1847, the U.S. Mail Steamship Company acquired the contract which allowed it to carry the U.S. mails from New York, with stops in New Orleans and Havana, to the Isthmus of Panama for delivery in California. The same year, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company had acquired the right to transport mail under contract from the United States Government from the Isthmus of Panama to California. In 1855, William Henry Aspinwall completed the Panama Railway, providing rail service across the Isthmus and cutting to three weeks the transport time for the mails, passengers and goods to California. This remained an important route until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Railroad companies greatly expanded mail transport service after 1862, and the Railway Mail Service was inaugurated in 1869.
Rail cars designed to sort and distribute mail while rolling were soon introduced. RMS employees sorted mail "on-the-fly" during the journey, and became some of the most skilled workers in the postal service. An RMS sorter had to be able to separate the mail quickly into compartments based on its final destination, before the first destination arrived, and work at the rate of 600 pieces of mail an hour. They were tested regularly for speed and accuracy.
Parcel Post service began with the introduction of International Parcel Post between the USA and foreign countries in 1887. That same year, the U.S. Post Office (predecessor of the USPS) and the Postmaster General of Canada established parcel-post service between the two nations. A bilateral parcel-post treaty between the independent (at the time) Kingdom of Hawaii and the USA was signed on 19 December 1888 and put into effect early in 1889. Parcel-post service between the USA and other countries grew with the signing of successive postal conventions and treaties. While the Post Office agreed to deliver parcels sent into the country under the UPU treaty, it did not institute a domestic parcel-post service for another twenty-five years.
The advent of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) in the U.S. in 1896, and the inauguration of a domestic parcel post service by Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock in 1913, greatly increased the volume of mail shipped nationwide, and motivated the development of more efficient postal transportation systems. Many rural customers took advantage of inexpensive Parcel Post rates to order goods and products from businesses located hundreds of miles away in distant cities for delivery by mail. From the 1910s to the 1960s, many college students and others used parcel post to mail home dirty laundry, as doing so was less expensive than washing the clothes themselves.
After four-year-old Charlotte May Pierstorff was mailed from her parents to her grandparents in Idaho in 1914, mailing of people was prohibited. In 1917, the Post Office imposed a maximum daily mailable limit of two hundred pounds per customer per day after a business entrepreneur, W.H. Coltharp, used inexpensive parcel-post rates to ship more than eighty thousand masonry bricks some four hundred seven miles via horse-drawn wagon and train for the construction of a bank building in Vernal, Utah.
In 1912, carrier service was announced for establishment in towns of second and third class with $100,000 appropriated by Congress. From January 1, 1911, until July 1, 1967, the United States Post Office Department operated the United States Postal Savings System. An Act of Congress of June 25, 1910, established the Postal Savings System in designated Post Offices, effective January 1, 1911. The legislation aimed to get money out of hiding, attract the savings of immigrants accustomed to the postal savings system in their native countries, provide safe depositories for people who had lost confidence in banks, and furnish more convenient depositories for working people. The law establishing the system directed the Post Office Department to redeposit most of the money in the system in local banks, where it earned 2.5 percent interest.
The system paid 2-percent interest per year on deposits. The half percent difference in interest was intended to pay for the operation of the system. Certificates were issued to depositors as proof of their deposit. Depositors in the system were initially limited to hold a balance of $500, but this was raised to $1,000 in 1916 and to $2,500 in 1918. The initial minimum deposit was $1. In order to save smaller amounts for deposit, customers could purchase a 10-cent postal savings card and 10-cent postal savings stamps to fill it. The card could be used to open or add to an account when its value, together with any attached stamps, amounted to one or more dollars, or it could be redeemed for cash. At its peak in 1947, the system held almost $3.4 billion in deposits, with more than four million depositors using 8,141 postal units.
The Post Office Department played an important intelligence role during World War I, implementing the Espionage and Trading with the Enemy Acts, monitoring foreign mail and acting as counter-espionage to help secure allied victory.
On August 12, 1918, the Post Office Department took over airmail service from the United States Army Air Service (USAAS). Assistant Postmaster General, Otto Praeger, appointed Benjamin B. Lipsner to head the civilian-operated Air Mail Service. One of Lipsner's first acts was to hire four pilots, each with at least 1,000 hours flying experience, paying them an average of $4,000 per year ($65.1 thousand today). The Post Office Department used new Standard JR-1B biplanes specially modified to carry the mail while the war was still in progress, but following the war operated mostly World War I surplus military de Havilland DH-4 aircraft.
During 1918, the Post Office hired an additional 36 pilots. In its first year of operation, the Post Office completed 1,208 airmail flights with 90 forced landings. Of those, 53 were due to weather and 37 to engine failure. By 1920, the Air Mail service had delivered 49 million letters. Domestic air mail became obsolete in 1975, and international air mail in 1995, when the USPS began transporting First-Class mail by air on a routine basis.
The Post Office was one of the first government departments to regulate obscene materials on a national basis. When the U.S. Congress passed the Comstock laws of 1873, it became illegal to send through the U.S. mail any material considered obscene or indecent, or which promoted abortion issues, birth control, or alcohol consumption.
On March 18, 1970, postal workers in New York City — upset over low wages and poor working conditions, and emboldened by the Civil Rights movement —organized a strike against the United States government. The strike initially involved postal workers in only New York City, but it eventually gained support of over 210,000 United States Post Office Department workers across the nation. While the strike ended without any concessions from the Federal government, it did ultimately allow for postal worker unions and the government to negotiate a contract which gave the unions most of what they wanted, as well as the signing of the Postal Reorganization Act by President Richard Nixon on August 12, 1970. The Act replaced the cabinet-level Post Office Department with a new federal agency, the United States Postal Service, and took effect on July 1, 1971.
The United States Postal Service employs some 617,000 workers, making it the third-largest civilian employer in the United States behind the federal government and Wal-Mart. In a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Court noted: "Each day, according to the Government's submissions here, the United States Postal Service delivers some 660 million pieces of mail to as many as 142 million delivery points." As of 2016, the USPS operates 31,585 post offices and locations in the U.S., and delivers 153.4 billion pieces of mail annually.
The USPS operates one of the largest civilian vehicle fleets in the world, with an estimated 227,896 vehicles, the majority of which are the easily identified Chevrolet/Grumman LLV (long-life vehicle), and the newer Ford/Utilimaster FFV (flex-fuel vehicle), originally also referred to as the CRV (carrier route vehicle). It is by geography and volume the globe's largest postal system, delivering 47% of the world's mail. For every penny increase in the national average price of gasoline, the USPS spends an extra $8 million per year to fuel its fleet.
The number of gallons of fuel used in 2009 was 444 million, at a cost of US$1.1 billion. The fleet is notable in that many of its vehicles are right-hand drive, an arrangement intended to give drivers the easiest access to roadside mailboxes. Some Rural Letter Carriers use personal vehicles. Standard postal-owned vehicles do not have license plates. These vehicles are identified by a seven digit number displayed on the front and rear.
The Department of Defense and the USPS jointly operate a postal system to deliver mail for the military; this is known as the Army Post Office (for Army and Air Force postal facilities) and the Fleet Post Office (for Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard postal facilities).
In February 2013, the Postal Service announced that on Saturdays it would only deliver packages, mail-order medicines, Priority Mail, and Express Mail, effective August 10, 2013. However, this change was reversed by federal law in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013. They now deliver packages on Sunday – only for Amazon.com. During the four weeks preceding Christmas since 2013, packages from all mail classes and senders were delivered on Sunday in some areas.
Parcels are also delivered on holidays, with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
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In 2011, numerous media outlets reported that the USPS was going out of business. The USPS's strategy came under fire as new technologies emerged and the USPS was not finding ways to generate new sources of revenue.
In 2016, the Postal Service collected $71.49 billion in revenue.
Revenue decline and planned cuts
In 2016, the USPS had its fifth straight annual operating loss, in the amount of $5.59 billion, of which $5.8 billion was the accrual of unpaid mandatory retiree health payments.
Declining mail volume
Lower volume means lower revenues to support the fixed commitment to deliver to every address once a day, six days a week. According to an official report on November 15, 2012, the U.S. Postal Service lost $15.9 billion its 2012 fiscal year.
Internal streamlining and delivery slowdown
In response, the USPS has increased productivity each year from 2000 to 2007, through increased automation, route re-optimization, and facility consolidation. Despite these efforts, the organization saw an $8.5 billion budget shortfall in 2010, and was losing money at a rate of about $3 billion per quarter in 2011.
On December 5, 2011 the USPS announced it would close more than half of its mail processing centers, eliminate 28,000 jobs and reduce overnight delivery of First-Class Mail. This will close down 252 of its 461 processing centers. (At peak mail volume in 2006, the USPS operated 673 facilities.) As of May 2012, the plan was to start the first round of consolidation in summer 2012, pause from September to December, and begin a second round in February 2014; 80% of first class mail would still be delivered overnight through the end of 2013. New delivery standards were issued in January 2015, and the majority of single-piece (not presorted) first-class mail is now being delivered in two days instead of one. Large commercial mailers can still have first-class mail delivered overnight if delivered directly to a processing center in the early morning, though as of 2014 this represented only 11% of first-class mail. Unsorted first-class mail will continued to be delivered anywhere in the contiguous United States within three days.
Post office closures
In July 2011, the USPS announced a plan to close about 3,700 small post offices. Various representatives in Congress protested, and the Senate passed a bill that would have kept open all post offices further than 10 miles from the next office. In May 2012, the service announced it had modified its plan. Instead, rural post offices would remain open with reduced retail hours (some as little as two hours per day) unless there was a community preference for a different option. In a survey of rural customers, 20% preferred the "Village Post Office" replacement (where a nearby private retail store would provide basic mail services with expanded hours), 15% preferred merger with another Post Office, and 11% preferred expanded rural delivery services. Approximately 40% of postal revenue already comes from online purchases or private retail partners including Walmart, Staples, Office Depot, Walgreens, Sam's Club, Costco, and grocery stores. The National Labor Relations Board agreed to hear the American Postal Workers Union's arguments that these counters should be manned by postal employees who earn far more and have "a generous package of health and retirement benefits".
Elimination of Saturday delivery averted
On January 28, 2009, Postmaster General John E. Potter testified before the Senate that, if the Postal Service could not readjust its payment toward the contractually funding earned employee retiree health benefits, as mandated by the Postal Accountability & Enhancement Act of 2006, the USPS would be forced to consider cutting delivery to five days per week during June, July, and August.
H.R. 22, addressing this issue, passed the House of Representatives and Senate and was signed into law on September 30, 2009. However, Postmaster General Potter continued to advance plans to eliminate Saturday mail delivery.
On June 10, 2009, the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association (NRLCA) was contacted for its input on the USPS's current study of the effect of five-day delivery along with developing an implementation plan for a five-day service plan. A team of Postal Service headquarters executives and staff has been given a time frame of sixty days to complete the study. The current concept examines the effect of five-day delivery with no business or collections on Saturday, with Post Offices with current Saturday hours remaining open.
On Thursday, April 15, 2010, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing to examine the status of the Postal Service and recent reports on short and long term strategies for the financial viability and stability of the USPS entitled "Continuing to Deliver: An Examination of the Postal Service's Current Financial Crisis and its Future Viability." At which, PMG Potter testified that by the year 2020, the USPS cumulative losses could exceed $238 billion, and that mail volume could drop 15 percent from 2009.
In February 2013, the USPS announced that in order to save about $2 billion per year, Saturday delivery service would be discontinued except for packages, mail-order medicines, Priority Mail, Express Mail, and mail delivered to Post Office boxes, beginning August 10, 2013. However the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013, passed in March, reversed the cuts to Saturday delivery.
Retirement funding and payment defaults
The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA) obligates the USPS to fund the present value of earned retirement obligations (essentially past promises which have not yet come due) within a ten-year time span. In contrast, private businesses in the United States have no legal obligation to pay for retirement costs at promise-time rather than retirement-time, but about one quarter do.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is the main bureaucratic organization responsible for the human resources aspect of many federal agencies and their employees. The PAEA created the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefit Fund (PSRHB) after Congress removed the Postal Service contribution to the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). Most other employees that contribute to the CSRS have 7% deducted from their wages.
On September 30, 2014, the USPS failed to make a $5.7 billion payment on this debt, the fourth such default.
Congress has limited rate increases for First-Class Mail to the cost of inflation, unless approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission. A 3¢ surcharge above inflation increased the 1 oz (28 g) rate to 49¢ in January, 2014, but this was approved by the Commission for two years only.
Reform packages, delivery changes, and alcohol delivery
Comprehensive reform packages considered in the 113th Congress include S.1486 and H.R.2748. These include the efficiency measure, supported by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe  of ending door-to-door delivery of mail for some or most of the 35 million addresses that currently receive it, replacing that with either curbside boxes or nearby "cluster boxes". This would save $4.5 billion per year out of the $30 billion delivery budget; door-to-door city delivery costs annually on average $353 per stop, curbside $224, and cluster box $160 (and for rural delivery, $278, $176, and $126, respectively).
S.1486, also with the support of Postmaster Donahoe, would also allow the USPS to ship alcohol in compliance with state law, from manufacturers to recipients with ID to show they are over 21. This is projected to raise approximately $50 million per year. (Shipping alcoholic beverages is currently illegal under 18 U.S.C. § 1716(f).)
In 2014, the Postal Service was requesting reforms to worker's compensation, moving from a pension to defined contribution retirement savings plan, and paying senior retiree health care costs out of Medicare funds, as is done for private-sector workers.
Governance and organization
The Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service sets policy, procedure, and postal rates for services rendered, and has a similar role to a corporate board of directors. Of the eleven members of the Board, nine are appointed by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate (see 39 U.S.C. § 202). The nine appointed members then select the United States Postmaster General, who serves as the board's tenth member, and who oversees the day-to-day activities of the service as Chief Executive Officer (see 39 U.S.C. §§ 202–203). The ten-member board then nominates a Deputy Postmaster General, who acts as Chief Operating Officer, to the eleventh and last remaining open seat.
The independent Postal Regulatory Commission (formerly the Postal Rate Commission) is also controlled by appointees of the President confirmed by the Senate. It oversees postal rates and related concerns, having the authority to approve or reject USPS proposals.
The USPS is often mistaken for a government-owned corporation (e.g., Amtrak) because it operates much like a business. It is, however, an "establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States", (39 U.S.C. § 201) as it is controlled by Presidential appointees and the Postmaster General. As a government agency, it has many special privileges, including sovereign immunity, eminent domain powers, powers to negotiate postal treaties with foreign nations, and an exclusive legal right to deliver first-class and third-class mail. Indeed, in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that the USPS was not a government-owned corporation, and therefore could not be sued under the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also upheld the USPS's statutory monopoly on access to letter boxes against a First Amendment freedom of speech challenge; it thus remains illegal in the U.S. for anyone, other than the employees and agents of the USPS, to deliver mailpieces to letter boxes marked "U.S. Mail".
The Postal Service also has a Mailers' Technical Advisory Committee and local Postal Customer Councils, which are advisory and primarily involve business customers.
Universal service obligation and monopoly status
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Legal basis and rationale
Article I, section 8, Clause 7 of the United States Constitution grants Congress the power to establish post offices and post roads, which has been interpreted as a de facto Congressional monopoly over the delivery of first class residential mail – which has been defined as non-urgent residential letters (not packages). Accordingly, no other system for delivering first class residential mail – public or private – has been tolerated, absent Congress's consent.
The mission of the Postal Service is to provide the American public with trusted universal postal service. While not explicitly defined, the Postal Service's universal service obligation (USO) is broadly outlined in statute and includes multiple dimensions: geographic scope, range of products, access to services and facilities, delivery frequency, affordable and uniform pricing, service quality, and security of the mail. While other carriers may claim to voluntarily provide delivery on a broad basis, the Postal Service is the only carrier with a legal obligation to provide all the various aspects of universal service.
Proponents of universal service principles claim that since any obligation must be matched by the financial capability to meet that obligation, the postal monopoly was put in place as a funding mechanism for the USO, and it has been in place for over a hundred years. It consists of two parts: the Private Express Statutes (PES) and the mailbox access rule. The PES refers to the Postal Service's monopoly on the delivery of letters, and the mailbox rule refers to the Postal Service's exclusive access to customer mailboxes.
Proponents of universal service principles further claim that eliminating or reducing the PES or mailbox rule would affect the ability of the Postal Service to provide affordable universal service. If, for example, the PES and the mailbox rule were to be eliminated, and the USO maintained, then either billions of dollars in tax revenues or some other source of funding would have to be found.
Some proponents[by whom?] of universal service principles suggest that private communications that are protected by the veil of government promote the exchange of free ideas and communications. This separates private communications from the ability of a private for-profit or non-profit organization to corrupt. Security for the individual is in this way protected by the United States Post Office, maintaining confidentiality and anonymity, as well as government employees being much less likely to be instructed by superiors to engage in nefarious spying. It is seen by some[by whom?] as a dangerous step to extract the universal service principle from the post office, as the untainted nature of private communications is preserved as assurance of the protection of individual freedom of privacy.
However, as the recent notice of a termination of mail service to residents of the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness indicates, mail service has been contracted to private firms such as Arnold Aviation for many decades. KTVB-TV reported:
"We cannot go out every week and pick up our mail....it's impossible", said Heinz Sippel. "Everyone gets their mail. Why can't we?" said Sue Anderson. Getting mail delivered, once a week, by airplane is not a luxury, it's a necessity for those who live in Idaho's vast wilderness – those along the Salmon and Selway rivers. It's a service that's been provided to them for more than half a century – mostly by Ray Arnold of Arnold Aviation.
The decision was reversed; U.S. Postmaster General John Potter indicated that acceptable service to back country customers could not be achieved in any other fashion than continuing an air mail contract with Arnold Aviation to deliver the mail.
2008 report on universal postal service and the postal monopoly
The Postal Act of 2006 required the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) to submit a report to the President and Congress on universal postal service and the postal monopoly in December 2008. The report must include any recommended changes. The Postal Service report supports the requirement that the PRC is to consult with and solicit written comments from the Postal Service. In addition, the Government Accountability Office is required to evaluate broader business model issues by 2011.
On October 15, 2008, the Postal Service submitted a report to the PRC on its position related to the Universal Service Obligation (USO). It said no changes to the USO and restriction on mailbox access were necessary at this time, but increased regulatory flexibility was required to ensure affordable universal service in the future. In 2013, the Postal Service announced that starting August 2013, Saturday delivery would be discontinued.
Obligations of the USO include uniform prices, quality of service, access to services, and six-day delivery to every part of the country. To assure financial support for these obligations, the postal monopoly provides the Postal Service the exclusive right to deliver letters and restricts mailbox access solely for mail. The report argued that eliminating or reducing either aspect of the monopoly "would have a devastating impact on the ability...to provide the affordable universal service that the country values so highly." Relaxing access to the mailbox would also pose security concerns, increase delivery costs, and hurt customer service, according to the Post Office. The report notes:
- It is somewhat misleading to characterize the mailbox rule as a "monopoly," because the enforcement of 18 U.S.C. § 1725 leaves customers with ample alternative means of delivering their messages. Customers can deliver their messages either by paying postage, by placing messages on or under a door or a doormat, by using newspaper or non-postal boxes, by telephoning or emailing, by engaging in person-to-person delivery in public areas, by tacking or taping their notices on a door post, or by placing advertisements in local newspapers. These methods are comparable in efficacy to communication via the mailbox.
Most of these alternatives are not actually free in some communities. For example, in the Chicago metropolitan area and many other major metros one must get a background check from police and pay a daily fee for the right to solicit or post commercial messages on private property.
Regarding the monopoly on delivery of letters, the report notes that the monopoly is not complete, as there is an exception for letters where either the amount paid for private carriage of the letter equals at least six times the current rate for the first ounce of a single-piece First-Class Mail letter (also known as the "base rate" or "base tariff") or the letter weighs at least 12.5 ounces.
The Postal Service said that the USO should continue to be broadly defined and there should be no changes to the postal monopoly. Any changes would have far-reaching effects on customers and the trillion dollar mailing industry. "A more rigidly defined USO would ... ultimately harm the American public and businesses," according to the report, which cautions that any potential change must be studied carefully and the effects fully understood.
FedEx and United Parcel Service (UPS) directly compete with USPS Express Mail and package delivery services, making nationwide deliveries of urgent letters and packages. Due to the postal monopoly, they are not allowed to deliver non-urgent letters and may not directly ship to U.S. Mail boxes at residential and commercial destinations. However, both companies have transit agreements with the USPS in which an item can be dropped off with either FedEx or UPS who will then provide shipment up to the destination post office serving the intended recipient where it will be transferred for delivery to the U.S. Mail destination, including Post Office Box destinations. These services also deliver packages which are larger and heavier than USPS will accept. DHL Express was the third major competitor until February 2009, when it ceased domestic delivery operations in the United States.
A variety of other transportation companies in the United States move cargo around the country, but either have limited geographic scope for delivery points, or specialize in items too large to be mailed. Many of the thousands of courier companies focus on same-day delivery, for example, by bicycle messenger.
Alternative transmission methods
The Post Office Department owned and operated the first public telegraph lines in the United States, starting in 1844 from Washington to Baltimore, and eventually extending to New York, Boston, Buffalo, and Philadelphia. In 1847 the telegraph system was privatized, except for a period during World War I, when it was used to accelerate the delivery of letters arriving at night.
Between 1942 and 1945 "V-Mail" (for "Victory Mail") service was available for military mail. Letters were converted into microfilm and reprinted near the destination, to save room on transport vehicles for military cargo.
From 1982 to 1985 Electronic Computer Originated Mail, known as E-COM was accepted for bulk mailings. Text was transmitted electronically to one of 25 post offices nationwide. The Postal Service would print the mail and put it in special envelopes bearing a blue E-COM logo. Delivery was assured within 2 days.
To improve accuracy and efficiency, the Postal Service introduced the Intelligent Mail program to complement the ZIP code system. This system, which was intended to replace the depreciated POSTNET system, allows bulk mailers to use pre-printed bar codes to assist in mail delivery and sorting. Additional features, called Enhanced, or Full-Service, Intelligent Mail Barcodes allow for mail tracking of bulk mail through the postal system up to the final delivery Post Office.
Criticism of the universal service requirement and the postal monopoly
Critics of the universal service requirement and the statutory postal monopoly include several professional economists advocating for the privatization of the mail delivery system, or at least a relaxation of the universal service model that currently exists. Rick Geddes argued in 2000:
- First, basic economics implies that rural customers are unlikely to be without service under competition; they would simply have to pay the true cost of delivery to them, which may or may not be lower than under monopoly.
- Second, basic notions of fairness imply that the cross-subsidy should be eliminated. To the extent that people make choices about where they live, they should assume the costs of that decision.
- Third, there is no reason why the government monopoly is necessary to ensure service to sparsely populated areas. The government could easily award competitive contracts to private firms for that service.
- Fourth, early concerns that rural residents of the United States would somehow become isolated without federally subsidized mail delivery today are simply unfounded. ... Once both sender and receiver have access to a computer, the marginal cost of sending an electronic message is close to zero.
Furthermore, some economists have argued that because public enterprises may pursue objectives different than profit maximization, they might have more of an incentive than profit-maximizing firms to behave anticompetitively through policies such as predatory pricing, misstating costs, and creating barriers to entry. To resolve those issues, one economist proposes a cost-allocation model that would determine the optimal allocation of USPS's common costs by finding the share of costs that would maximize USPS profits from its competitive products. Postal regulators could use such a cost model to ensure that the Postal Service is not abusing its statutory monopoly by subsidizing price cuts in competitive product markets with revenue obtained from the monopolized market.
Law enforcement agencies
Postal Inspection Service
The United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) is one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Founded by Benjamin Franklin, its mission is to protect the Postal Service, its employees, and its customers from crime and protect the nation's mail system from criminal misuse.
Postal Inspectors enforce over 200 federal laws providing for the protection of mail in investigations of crimes that may adversely affect or fraudulently use the U.S. Mail, the postal system or postal employees.
The USPIS has the power to enforce the USPS monopoly by conducting search and seizure raids on entities they suspect of sending non-urgent mail through overnight delivery competitors. According to the American Enterprise Institute, a private conservative think tank, the USPIS raided Equifax offices in 1993 to ascertain if the mail they were sending through Federal Express was truly "extremely urgent." It was found that the mail was not, and Equifax was fined $30,000.
Lastly, the PIS oversees the activities of the Postal Police Force who patrol in and around selected high-risk postal facilities in major metropolitan areas in the United States and its territories.
Office of Inspector General
The United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG) was authorized by law in 1996. Prior to the 1996 legislation, the Postal Inspection Service performed the duties of the OIG. The Inspector General, who is independent of postal management, is appointed by and reports directly to the nine presidentially appointed, Senate–confirmed members of the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service.
The primary purpose of the OIG is to prevent, detect and report fraud, waste and program abuse, and promote efficiency in the operations of the Postal Service. The OIG has "oversight" responsibility for all activities of the Postal Inspection Service.
How delivery services work
Elements of addressing and preparing domestic mail
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All mailable articles (e.g., letters, flats, machinable parcels, irregular parcels, etc.) shipped within the United States must comply with an array of standards published in the USPS Domestic Mail Manual (DMM). Before addressing the mailpiece, one must first comply with the various mailability standards relating to attributes of the actual mailpiece such as: minimum/maximum dimensions and weight, acceptable mailing containers, proper mailpiece sealing/closure, utilization of various markings, and restrictions relating to various hazardous (e.g., explosives, flammables, etc.) and restricted (e.g., cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, etc.) materials, as well as others articulated in § 601 of the DMM.
The USPS specifies the following key elements when preparing the face of a mailpiece:
- Proper Placement: The Delivery Address should be left-justified and located roughly in the center of mailpiece's largest side. More precisely, on a letter-size piece, the recommended address placement is within the optical character reader (OCR) read area, which is a space on the address side of the mailpiece defined by these boundaries: Left – 1/2 inch (13 mm) from the left edge of the piece; Right – 1/2 inch (13 mm) from the right edge of the piece; Top – 2-3/4 inches (70 mm) from the bottom edge of the piece; Bottom – 5/8 inch (16 mm) from the bottom edge of the piece. Preferred placement of a return address is in the upper left portion of the mailpiece—on the side of the piece bearing postage. Finally, postage (e.g., stamps, meter imprints, information-based indicia [IBI], etc.) is to be affixed in the upper right corner of the address side of the mail cover. It should be noted that any stamp/indicia partly concealed or otherwise obscured by an overlapping stamp/indicia may not be counted as valid postage.
- Delivery Address (party receiving mail): The mail piece must have the address of the intended recipient, visible and legible, only on the side of the mail piece bearing postage. Generally, the name of the addressee should be included above the address itself. A ZIP+4 code will facilitate delivery.
- Return Address (party sending mail): A return address tells the USPS where the sender wants the mail returned if it is undeliverable. Usage of a return address is required for some postal services (including Priority Mail, Express Mail, Periodicals in envelopes or wrappers, Insured Mail, Registered Mail, and parcel services).
- Postage Payment: All mailpieces must include appropriate valid postage. Postage payment may be in the form of stamps, stamped stationery, precanceled stamps, postage meter imprints & PC Postage products ("Postage Evidencing Systems"), or permit imprint (indicia). Members of the U.S. Congress, among others, have franking privileges, which require only a signature.
Mail going to naval vessels is known as the Fleet Post Office (FPO) and to Army or Air Force installations use the city abbreviation APO (Army Post Office or Air Force Post Office).
- The format of the address is as follows
- Line 1: Name of recipient
- Line 2: Street address or P.O. Box
- Line 3: City, State (ISO 3166-2:US code or APO/FPO code) and ZIP+4 code
- Clifford Clavin
- 789 Beacon Street
- Boston MA 02186-1234
The USPS maintains a list of proper abbreviations.
The format of a return address is similar. Though some style manuals recommend using a comma between the city and state name when typesetting addresses in other contexts, for optimal automatic character recognition, the Post Office does not recommend this when addressing mail. The official recommendation is to use all upper case block letters with proper formats and abbreviations, and leave out all punctuation except for the hyphen in the ZIP+4 code. If the address is unusually formatted or illegible enough, it will require hand-processing, delaying that particular item. The USPS publishes the entirety of their postal addressing standards.
Postal address verification tools and services are offered by the USPS and third party companies to help ensure mail is deliverable by fixing formatting, appending information such as ZIP code and validating the address is a valid delivery point. Customers can look up ZIP codes and verify addresses using USPS Web Tools available on the official USPS website and Facebook page, as well as on third-party sites.
Delivery Point Validation
Delivery Point Validation (DPV) provides the highest level of address accuracy checking. In a DPV process, the address is checked against the AMS data file to ensure that it exists as an active delivery point. The USPS does not offer DPV validation on their website however there are companies that offer services to perform DPV verification.
The actual postage can be paid via:
- Stamps purchased online at usps.com, at a Post Office, from a stamp vending machine or "Automated Postal Center" which can also handle packages, or from a third party (such as a grocery store)
- Pre-cancelled stamps for bulk mailings
- Postal meter
- Prepaid envelope
- Shipping label purchased online and printed by the customer on standard paper (e.g. with Click-N-Ship, or via a third-party such as PayPal or Amazon shipping)
All unused U.S. postage stamps issued since 1861 are still valid as postage at their indicated value. Stamps with no value shown or denominated by a letter are also still valid, although the value depends upon the particular stamp. For some stamps issued without a printed value, the current value is the original value. But some stamps beginning in 1988 or earlier, including "Forever Stamps" that were issued beginning in April 2007, and all 1st class mail 1st ounce stamps beginning 2011-01-21, the value is the current value of a 1st class mail 1st ounce stamps. (The USPS calls these "Forever Stamps". The generic name is non-denominated postage.)
Forever stamps are sold at the First-Class Mail postage rate at the time of purchase, but will always be valid for First-Class Mail (1 oz and under), no matter how rates rise in the future. Britain has had a similar stamp since 1989. The cost of mailing a 1 oz (28 g) First-Class letter increased to 49 cents on January 26, 2014.
A postage meter is a mechanical device used to create and apply physical evidence of postage (or franking) to mailed matter. Postage meters are regulated by a country's postal authority; for example, in the United States, the United States Postal Service specifies the rules for the creation, support, and use of postage meters. A postage meter imprints an amount of postage, functioning as a postage stamp, a cancellation and a dated postmark all in one. The meter stamp serves as proof of payment and eliminates the need for adhesive stamps.
In addition to using standard stamps, postage can now be printed in the form of an electronic stamp, or e-stamp, from a personal computer using a system called Information Based Indicia. This online PC Postage method relies upon application software on the customer's computer contacting a postal security device at the office of the postal service.
Other electronic postage payment methods
Electronic Verification System (eVS) is the Postal Service's integrated mail management technology that centralizes payment processing and electronic postage reports. Part of an evolving suite of USPS electronic payment services called PostalOne!, eVS allows mailers shipping large volumes of parcels through the Postal Service a way to circumvent use of hard-copy manifests, postage statements and drop-shipment verification forms. Instead, mailers can pay postage automatically through a centralized account and track payments online.
Beginning in August 2007, the Postal Service began requiring mailers shipping Parcel Select packages using a permit imprint to use eVS for manifesting their packages.
Stamp copyright and reproduction
All U.S. postage stamps issued under the former United States Post Office Department and other postage items that were released before 1978 are not subject to copyright, but stamp designs since 1978 are copyrighted. The United States Copyright Office in section 313.6(C)(1) of the Third Edition of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices holds that "Works prepared by officers or employees of the U.S. Postal Service... are not considered works of the U.S. Government" and are therefore eligible for registration. Thus, the USPS holds copyright to such materials released since 1978 under Title 17 of the United States Code. Written permission is required for use of copyrighted postage stamp images, although under USPS rules, permission is "generally" not required for "educational use", "news reporting" or "philatelic advertising use," but users must cite USPS as the source of the image and include language such as "© United States Postal Service. All rights reserved."
Service level choices
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General domestic services
As of April 2011, domestic postage levels for low-volume mailers include:
- Priority Mail Express (Formerly Express Mail): Overnight delivery guaranteed to most locations
- Sunday, holiday and 10:30 am delivery available for additional charge.
- $100 insurance included.
- Tracking included.
- Flat Rate envelopes are available. Otherwise, pricing varies by weight and distance.
- Priority Mail: Day specific delivery service ranging from 1–3 days depending on origin of shipment (not guaranteed)
- As of January 27, 2013, tracking via Delivery Confirmation is now included on all Priority Mail shipments.
- Flat Rate envelopes and boxes (various sizes) are available free from the Postal Store. Otherwise, pricing varies by weight, size and distance.
- $50 insurance for retail/$100 insurance for commercial starting on July 28, 2013.
- Tracking Included
- First-Class Mail
- 2–3 day delivery.
- In most cases for letters and small packages.
- Rate varies by size and weight, but not distance.
- Postcards (5" × 3.5" × 0.007 to 6" × 4.25" × 0.016" [127 × 89 × 0.18 to 152 × 108 × 0.4 mm]): 34¢
- Letters (up to 11.5" × 6.125" × 0.25", 3.5 oz [292 × 156 × 6.4 mm, 100 g]): 49¢ + 20¢ for each additional ounce
- Large Envelope or Flat (up to 15" × 12" × 0.75", 13 oz [381 × 305 × 19 mm, 370 g]): 90¢ + 20¢ each additional ounce (28 g). Must be rectangular, uniformly thick, and not too rigid.
- Package/Parcel (Up to 108 inches (270 cm) length plus girth, 13 ounces (370 g): $1.95 + 17¢ each additional ounce (28 g) over 3 ounces (84 g))
- 2–3 day delivery.
- USPS Retail Ground (formerly Parcel Post)
- Slowest but cheapest service for packages too large or heavy for First Class—uses surface transport.
- 2–9 day service to contiguous U.S., 4–14 days internal to AK/HI/territories, 3–6 weeks between mainland and outlying areas (travels by ship).
- Variable pricing by weight, size and distance.
- Free forwarding if recipient has filed change-of-address form, or return if the item is undeliverable.
- Media Mail—formerly "Book Rate"
- Books and recorded media only.
- No advertising.
- Pricing by weight only.
- Transit time similar to Parcel Post.
- Cheaper than Parcel Post but only due to increased restrictions on package contents.
- Library Mail
- Similar to Media Mail, but cheaper and restricted to academic institutions, public libraries, museums, etc.
The Post Office will not deliver packages heavier than 70 pounds (32 kg) or if the length (the package's longest dimension) plus the girth (the measurement around the package at its largest point in the two shorter dimensions) is greater than 108 inches (270 cm) combined (130 inches [330 cm] for Parcel Post)
Discounts are available for large volumes of mail. Depending on the postage level, certain conditions might be required or optional for an additional discount:
- Minimum number of pieces
- Weight limits
- Ability for the USPS to process by machine
- Addresses formatting standardized
- USPS-readable barcode
- Sorted by three-digit ZIP code prefix, five-digit ZIP code, ZIP+4, or 11-digit delivery point
- Delivered in trays, bundles, or pallets partitioned by destination
- Delivered directly to a regional Bulk Mail Center, destination SCF, or destination Post Office
- Certification of mailing list accuracy and freshness (e.g. correct ZIP codes, purging of stale addresses, processing of change-of-address notifications)
In addition to bulk discounts on Express, Priority, and First-Class Mail, the following postage levels are available for bulk mailers:
- Standard Mail (A)
- Enhanced Carrier Route
- Standard Mail (B)
Depending on the type of mail, additional services are available for an additional fee:
- Certificate of Mailing provides proof of the date a package was mailed.
- Certified Mail provides proof of mailing, and a delivery record. Used for serving legal documents and for sending U.S. Government classified information, up to the "confidential" level.
- Collect on Delivery (C.O.D.) allows merchants to offer customers an option to pay upon delivery, up to $1000. Includes insurance.
- USPS Tracking provides proof of delivery to sorting facilities, local post office and destination, but no signature is required.
- Insurance is shipping insurance against loss or damage for the value of the goods mailed. Amount of coverage can be specified, up to $5,000.
- Registered Mail is used for highly valuable or irreplaceable items, and classified information up to the "secret" level. Registered mail is transported separately from other mail, in locked containers. Tracking is included and insurance up to $25,000 is available.
- Restricted Delivery requires delivery to a specific person or their authorized agent, not just to a mailbox.
- Return Receipt actively sends signature confirmation back to the sender by postcard or emailed PDF (as opposed to merely putting this information into the online tracking system).
- Signature Confirmation requires a delivery signature, which is kept on file. The online tracking system displays the first initial and last name of the signatory.
- Special Handling is for unusual items, like live animals.
In May 2007, the USPS restructured international service names to correspond with domestic shipping options. Formerly, USPS International services were categorized as Airmail (Letter Post), Economy (Surface) Parcel Post, Airmail Parcel Post, Global Priority, Global Express, and Global Express Guaranteed Mail. The former Airmail (Letter Post) is now First-Class Mail International, and includes small packages weighing up to four pounds (1.8 kg). Economy Parcel Post was discontinued for international service, while Airmail Parcel Post was replaced by Priority Mail International. Priority Mail International Flat-Rate packaging in various sizes was introduced, with the same conditions of service previously used for Global Priority. Global Express is now Express Mail International, while Global Express Guaranteed is unchanged. The international mailing classes with a tracking ability are Express, Express Guaranteed, and Priority (except that tracking is not available for Priority Mail International Flat Rate Envelopes or Priority Mail International Small Flat Rate Boxes).
One of the major changes in the new naming and services definitions is that USPS-supplied mailing boxes for Priority and Express mail are now allowed for international use. These services are offered to ship letters and packages to almost every country and territory on the globe. The USPS provides much of this service by contracting with a private parcel service, FedEx.
The USPS provides an M-bag service for international shipment of printed matter; previously surface M-bags existed, but with the 2007 elimination of surface mail, only airmail M-bags remain. The term "M-bag" is not expanded in USPS publications; M-bags are simply defined as "direct sacks of printed matter ... sent to a single foreign addressee at a single address"; however, the term is sometimes referred to informally as "media bag", as the bag can also contain "discs, tapes, and cassettes", in addition to books, for which the usual umbrella term is "media"; some also refer to them as "mail bags".
Military mail is billed at domestic rates when being sent from the United States to a military outpost, and is free when sent by deployed military personnel. The overseas logistics are handled by the Military Postal Service Agency in the Department of Defense. Outside of forward areas and active operations, military mail First-Class takes 7–10 days, Priority 10–15 days, and Parcel Post about 24 days.
Three independent countries with a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. (Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia) have a special relationship with the United States Postal Service:
- Each associated state maintains its own government-run mail service for delivery to and pickup from retail customers.
- The associated states are integrated into the USPS addressing and ZIP code system.
- The USPS is responsible for transporting mail between the United States and the associated states, and between the individual states of the Federated States of Micronesia.
- The associated states synchronize postal services and rates with the USPS.
- The USPS treats mail to and from the associated states as domestic mail, (as of November 19, 2007, after a 23-month period of being treated as international mail). Incoming mail does require customs declarations because, like some U.S. territories, the associated states are outside the main customs territory of the United States.
The discontinuation of international surface mail
In 2007, the US Postal Service discontinued its outbound international surface mail ("sea mail") service, mainly because of increased costs. Returned undeliverable surface parcels had become an expensive problem for the USPS. The discontinuation has been criticized by independent booksellers, by other small businesses which ship internationally, by the Peace Corps, and by military personnel. Domestic surface mail (now "Retail Ground" or "Commercial Parcel Select") remains available.
Alternatives to international surface mail include:
- International Surface Air Lift. This service is available to commercial senders only. The service includes neither tracking nor insurance; but it may be possible to purchase shipping insurance from a third-party company.
- USPS Commercial ePacket. This service is available to commercial senders only. The service is trackable.
- Ordinary first-class international airmail.
Sorting and delivery process
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Processing of standard sized envelopes and cards is highly automated, including reading of handwritten addresses. Mail from individual customers and public postboxes is collected by mail carriers into plastic tubs, which are taken to one of approximately 251 Processing and Distribution Centers (P&DC) across the United States. Each P&DC sorts mail for a given region (typically with a radius of around 200 miles (320 km)) and connects with the national network for interregional mail. The USPS has consolidated mail sorting for large regions into the P&DCs on the basis that most mail is addressed to faraway destinations, but for cities at the edge of a P&DC's region, this means all locally addressed mail must now travel long distances (that is, to and from the P&DC for sorting) to reach nearby addresses.
At the P&DC, mail is emptied into hampers which are then automatically dumped into a Dual Pass Rough Cull System (DPRCS). As mail travels through the DPRCS, large items, such as packages and mail bundles, are removed from the stream. As the remaining mail enters the first machine for processing standard mail, the Advanced Facer-Canceler System (AFCS), pieces that passed through the DPRCS but do not conform to physical dimensions for processing in the AFCS (e.g., large envelopes or overstuffed standard envelopes) are automatically diverted from the stream. Mail removed from the DPRCS and AFCS is manually processed or sent to parcel sorting machines.
In contrast to the previous system, which merely canceled and postmarked the upper right corner of the envelope, thereby missing any stamps which were inappropriately placed, the Advanced Facer-Canceler System locates indicia (stamp or metered postage mark), regardless of the orientation of the mail as it enters the machine, and cancels it by applying a postmark. Detection of indicia enables the AFCS to determine the orientation of each mailpiece and sort it accordingly, rotating pieces as necessary so all mail is sorted right-side up and faced in the same direction in each output bin.
Mail is output by the machine into three categories: mail already affixed with a bar code and addressed (such as business reply envelopes and cards); mail with machine printed (typed) addresses; and mail with handwritten addresses. Additionally, machines with a recent Optical Character Recognition (OCR) upgrade have the capability to read the address information, including handwritten, and sort the mail based on local or outgoing ZIP codes.
Mail with typed addresses goes to a Multiline Optical Character Reader (MLOCR) which reads the ZIP Code and address information and prints the appropriate bar code onto the envelope. Mail (actually the scanned image of the mail) with handwritten addresses (and machine-printed ones that are not easily recognized) goes to the Remote Bar Coding System. It also corrects spelling errors and, where there is an error, omission, or conflict in the written address, identifies the most likely correct address.
When it has decided on a correct address, it prints the appropriate bar code onto the envelopes, similarly to the MLOCR system. RBCS also has facilities in place, called Remote Encoding Centers, that have humans look at images of mail pieces and enter the address data. The address data is associated with the image via an ID Tag, a fluorescent barcode printed by mail processing equipment on the back of mail pieces.
Processed mail is imaged by the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) system to allow easier tracking of hazardous substances. Images are taken at more than 200 mail processing centers, and are destroyed after being retained for 30 days.
If a customer has filed a change of address card and his or her mail is detected in the mailstream with the old address, the mailpiece is sent to a machine that automatically connects to a Computerized Forwarding System database to determine the new address. If this address is found, the machine will paste a label over the former address with the current address. The mail is returned to the mailstream to forward to the new location.
Mail with addresses that cannot be resolved by the automated system are separated for human intervention. If a local postal worker can read the address, he or she manually sorts it out according to the ZIP code on the article. If the address cannot be read, mail is either returned to the sender (First-Class Mail with a valid return address) or is sent to the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia (formerly known as the dead letter office). At this office, the mail is opened to try to find an address to forward to. If an address is found, the contents are resealed and delivered. Otherwise, the items are held for 90 days in case of inquiry by the customer; if they are not claimed, they are either destroyed or auctioned off at the monthly Postal Service Unclaimed Parcel auction to raise money for the service.
Once the mail is bar coded, it is automatically sorted by a Delivery Bar Code Sorter (DBCS) that reads the bar code, identifies the destination of the mailpiece, and sends it to an appropriate tray that corresponds to the next segment of its journey.
Regional mail is either trucked to the appropriate local post office, or kept in the building for carrier routes served directly from the P&DC. Out-of-region mail is trucked to the airport and then flown, usually as baggage on commercial airlines, to the airport nearest the destination station. At the destination P&DC, mail is once again read by a DBCS which sorts items to local post offices; this includes grouping mailpieces by individual mail carrier.
At the carrier route level, 95% of letters arrive pre-sorted; the remaining mail must be sorted by hand. The Post Office is working to increase the percentage of automatically sorted mail, including a pilot program to sort "flats".
FedEx provides air transport service to USPS for Priority and Express Mail. Priority Mail and Express Mail are transported from Priority Mail processing centers to the closest FedEx-served airport, where they are handed off to FedEx. FedEx then flies them to the destination airport and hands them back to USPS for transport to the local post office and delivery.
Types of postal facilities
Although its customer service centers are called post offices in regular speech, the USPS recognizes several types of postal facilities, including the following:
- A main post office (formerly known as a general post office) is the primary postal facility in a community.
- A station or post office station is a postal facility that is not the main post office, but that is within the corporate limits of the community.
- A branch or post office branch is a postal facility that is not the main post office and that is outside the corporate limits of the community.
- A classified unit is a station or branch operated by USPS employees in a facility owned or leased by the USPS.
- A contract postal unit (or CPU) is a station or branch operated by a contractor, typically in a store or other place of business.
- A community post office (or CPO) is a contract postal unit providing services in a small community in which other types of post office facilities have been discontinued.
- A finance unit is a station or branch that provides window services and accepts mail, but does not provide delivery.
- A village post office (VPO) is an entity such as a local business or government center that provides postal services through a contract with the USPS. First introduced in 2011 as an integral part of the USPS plan to close low volume post offices, village post offices will fill the role of the post office within a ZIP code.
- A processing and distribution center (P&DC, or processing and distribution facility, formerly known as a General Mail Facility) is a central mail facility that processes and dispatches incoming and outgoing mail to and from a designated service area (251 nationwide).
- A sectional center facility (SCF) is a P&DC for a designated geographical area defined by one or more three-digit ZIP code prefixes.
- An international service center (ISC) is an international mail processing facility. There are only five such USPS facilities in the United States, located in Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
- A network distribution center, formerly known as a bulk mail center (BMC), is a central mail facility that processes bulk rate parcels as the hub in a hub and spoke network.
- An auxiliary sorting facility (ASF) is a central mail facility that processes bulk rate parcels as spokes in a hub and spoke network.
- A remote encoding center (REC) is a facility at which clerks receive images of problem mail pieces (those with hard-to-read addresses, etc.) via secure Internet-type feeds and manually type the addresses they can decipher, using a special encoding protocol. The mail pieces are then sprayed with the correct addresses or are sorted for further handling according to the instructions given via encoding. The total number of RECs is down from 55 in 1998 to just 1 center in December 2016. The last REC is in Salt Lake City, Utah.
While common usage refers to all types of postal facilities as "substations", the USPS Glossary of Postal Terms does not define or even list that word. Post Offices often share facilities with other governmental organizations located within a city's central business district. In those locations, often Courthouses and Federal Buildings, the building is owned by the General Services Administration while the U.S. Postal Services operates as a tenant. The USPS retail system has approximately 36,000 post offices, stations, and branches.
Automated Postal Centers
In the year 2004, the USPS began deploying Automated Postal Centers (APCs). APCs are unattended kiosks that are capable of weighing, franking, and storing packages for later pickup as well as selling domestic and international postage stamps. Since its introduction, APCs do not take cash payments – they only accept credit or debit cards. Similarly, traditional vending machines are available at many post offices to purchase stamps, though these are being phased out in many areas. Due to increasing use of Internet services, as of June 2009, no retail post office windows are open 24 hours; overnight services are limited to those provided by an Automated Postal Center.
Evolutionary Network Development (END) program
In February 2006, the USPS announced that they plan to replace the nine existing facility-types with five processing facility-types:
- Regional Distribution Centers (RDCs), which will process all classes of parcels and bundles and serve as Surface Transfer Centers;
- Local Processing Centers (LPCs), which will process single-piece letters and flats and cancel mail;
- Destination Processing Centers (DPC), sort the mail for individual mail carriers;
- Airport Transfer Centers (ATCs), which will serve as transfer points only; and
- Remote Encoding Centers (RECs).
Over a period of years, these facilities are expected to replace Processing & Distribution Centers, Customer Service Facilities, Bulk Mail Centers, Logistic and Distribution Centers, annexes, the Hub and Spoke Program, Air Mail Centers, and International Service Centers.
The changes are a result of the declining volumes of single-piece First-Class Mail, population shifts, the increase in drop shipments by advertising mailers at destinating postal facilities, advancements in equipment and technology, redundancies in the existing network, and the need for operational flexibility.
Airline and rail division
The United States Postal Service does not directly own or operate any aircraft or trains, although both were formerly operated. The mail and packages are flown on airlines with which the Postal Service has a contractual agreement. The contracts change periodically. Contract airlines have included: UPS, Emery Worldwide, Ryan International Airlines, FedEx Express, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Express One International. The Postal Service also contracts with Amtrak to carry some mail between certain cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis – Saint Paul.
The last air delivery route in the continental U.S., to residents in the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness, was scheduled to be ended in June 2009. The weekly bush plane route, contracted out to an air taxi company, had in its final year an annual cost of $46,000, or $2400/year per residence, over ten times the average cost of delivering mail to a residence in the United States. This decision has been reversed by the U.S. Postmaster General.
Parcel forwarding and private interchange
Private US parcel forwarding or US mail forwarding companies focusing on personal shopper, relocation, Ex-pat and mail box services often interface with the United States Postal Service for transporting of mail and packages for their customers.
From 1810, mail was delivered seven days a week. In 1828, local religious leaders noticed a decline in Sunday-morning church attendance because of local post offices' doubling as gathering places. These leaders appealed to the government to intervene and close post offices on Sundays. The government, however, declined, and mail was delivered 7 days a week until 1912.
Today, U.S. Mail (with the exception of Express Mail) is not delivered on Sunday, except in a few towns in which the local religion has had an effect on the policy, such as Loma Linda, California, which has a significant Seventh-day Adventist population and where U.S. Mail is delivered Sunday through Friday, with the exception of observed federal holidays.
Budget problems prompted consideration of dropping Saturday delivery starting around 2009. This culminated in a 2013 announcement that regular mail services would be cut to five days a week, which was reversed by Congress before it could take effect. (See the section Revenue decline and planned cuts.)
Direct delivery vs. customer pickup
Originally, mail was not delivered to homes and businesses, but to post offices. In 1863, "city delivery" began in urban areas with enough customers to make this economical. This required streets to be named, houses to be numbered, with sidewalks and lighting provided, and these street addresses to be added to envelopes. The number of routes served expanded over time. In 1891, the first experiments with Rural Free Delivery began in less densely populated areas. There is currently an effort to reduce direct delivery in favor of mailbox clusters.
To compensate for high mail volume and slow long-distance transportation which saw mail arrive at post offices throughout the day, deliveries were made multiple times a day. This ranged from twice for residential areas to up to seven times for the central business district of Brooklyn, New York. In the late 19th century, mail boxes were encouraged, saving carriers the time it took to deliver directly to the addressee in person; in the 1910s and 1920s, they were phased in as a requirement for service. In the 1940s, multiple daily deliveries began to be reduced, especially on Saturdays. By 1990, the last twice-daily deliveries in New York City were eliminated.
Today, mail is delivered once a day on-site to most private homes and businesses. The USPS still distinguishes between city delivery (where carriers generally walk and deliver to mailboxes hung on exterior walls or porches, or to commercial reception areas) and rural delivery (where carriers generally drive). With "curbside delivery", mailboxes are at the ends of driveways, on the nearest convenient road. "Central point delivery" is used in some locations, where several nearby residences share a "cluster" of individual mailboxes in a single housing.
Some customers choose to use post office boxes for an additional fee, for privacy or convenience. This provides a locked box at the post office to which mail is addressed and delivered (usually earlier in the day than home delivery). Customers in less densely populated areas where there is no city delivery and who do not qualify for rural delivery may receive mail only through post office boxes. High-volume business customers can also arrange for special pick-up.
Another option is the old-style general delivery, for people who have neither post office boxes nor street addresses. Mail is held at the post office until they present identification and pick it up.
Some customers receive free post office boxes if the USPS declines to provide door-to-door delivery to their location or a nearby box. People with medical problems can request door-to-door delivery. Homeless people are also eligible for post office boxes at the discretion of the local postmaster, or can use general delivery.
From 1885 to 1997, a service called special delivery was available, which caused a separate delivery to the final location earlier in the day than the usual daily rounds.
In December 2012, the USPS began a limited one-year trial of same-day deliveries directly from retailers or distribution hubs to residential addresses in the same local area, a service it dubbed "Metro Post". The trial was initially limited to San Francisco and the only retailer to participate in the first few weeks was 1-800-FLOWERS.
In March 2013, the USPS faced new same-day competition for e-commerce deliveries from Google Shopping Express.
In November 2013, the Postal Service began regular package delivery on Sundays for Amazon customers in New York and Los Angeles, which it expanded to 15 cities in May 2014. Amazon Sunday delivery has now been expanded to most major markets as of September, 2015.
Forwarding and holds
Residential customers can fill out a form to forward mail to a new address, and can also send pre-printed forms to any of their frequent correspondents. They can also put their mail on "hold", for example, while on vacation. The Post Office will store mail during the hold, instead of letting it overflow in the mailbox. These services are not available to large buildings and customers of a commercial mail receiving agency, where mail is subsorted by non-Post Office employees into individual mailboxes.
Postal money orders provide a safe alternative to sending cash through the mail, and are available in any amount up to $1000. Like a bank cheque, money orders are cashable only by the recipient. Unlike a personal bank check, they are prepaid and therefore cannot be returned because of insufficient funds. Money orders are a declining business for the USPS, as companies like PayPal, PaidByCash and others are offering electronic replacements.
A January 2014 report by the Inspector General of the USPS suggested that the agency could earn $8.9 billion per year in revenue by providing financial services, especially in areas where there are no local banks but there is a local post office, and to customers who currently do not have bank accounts.
Employment in the USPS
The Postal Service is the nation's second-largest civilian employer. As of 2011[update], it employed 574,000 personnel, divided into offices, processing centers, and actual post offices. The United States Postal Service would rank 29th on the 2010 Fortune 500 list, if considered a private company.
Labor unions representing USPS employees include: The American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which represents postal clerks and maintenance, motor vehicle, mail equipment shops, material distribution centers, and operating services and facilities services employees, postal nurses, and IT and accounting; the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), which represents city letter carriers; the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association (NRLCA), which represents rural letter carriers; and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU).
USPS employees are divided into three major crafts according to the work they engage in:
- Mail carriers, also referred to as mailmen or letter carriers, prepare and deliver mail and parcels. They are divided into two categories: City Letter Carriers, who are represented by the NALC, and Rural Letter Carriers, who are represented by the NRLCA. City Carriers are paid hourly with automatic overtime paid after 8 hours or 40 hours a week of duty. City Carriers are required to work in any kind of weather, daylight or dark and carry three bundles of mail (letters in one hand, magazines in the other and advertisements in a mailbag) in addition to parcels up to a total of 70 lbs. Mail routes are outfitted with a number of scanpoints (mailbox barcodes) on random streets every 30 to 40 minutes apart to keep track of the Carriers' whereabouts up until the last 5 minutes of any given workday.
- Rural carriers are under a form of salary called "evaluated hours", usually with overtime built into their pay. The evaluated hours are created by having all mail counted for a period of two or four weeks, and a formula used to create the set dollar amount they will be paid for each day worked until the next time the route is counted.
- Mail handlers and processors, prepare, separate, load and unload mail and parcels, by delivery ZIP code and station, for the clerks. They work almost exclusively at the plants or larger mail facilities now after having their duties excessed and reassigned to clerks in Post Offices and Station branches.
- Clerks, have a dual function by design of where their assignment is. Window clerks directly handle customer service needs at the counter, sort box mail and also sort first class letters, standard and bulk-rate mail for the carriers on the work floor. Clerks may also work alongside mail handlers in large sorting facilities, outside of the public view, sorting mail. Data Conversion Operators, who encode address information at Remote Encoding Centers, are also members of the clerk craft. Mail handlers and Clerks are represented by the NPMHU and the APWU respectively.
Other non-managerial positions in the USPS include:
- Maintenance and custodians, who see to the overall operation and cleaning of mail sorting machines, work areas, public parking and general facility operations.
- City Carrier Assistants. (CCA's) With the Das Arbitration award the designation of PTF City Carrier has been abolished. TE City Carriers will have the opportunity to become CCA's. A CCA is a non-career employee who is hired for a 360-day term, similar to what TE's had. CCA's earn annual leave. CCA's, unlike TE's do have a direct path to becoming career employees. When excess City Carrier positions exist the CCA in that work installation with the highest "relative standing" will be promoted to a career employee and be assigned to the vacant position.
- Career, Part Time Flexible and Transitional employees (Career, PTF & TE) There are a variety of other non-managerial positions in such crafts as accounting, information technology, and the remote encoding center. These are under a different contract than plant workers or mail carriers.
Though the USPS employs many individuals, as more Americans send information via email, fewer postal workers are needed to work dwindling amounts of mail. Post offices and mail facilities are constantly downsizing, replacing craft positions with new machines and consolidating mail routes through the MIARAP (Modified Interim Alternate Route Adjustment Process) agreement. A major round of job cuts, early retirements, and a construction freeze were announced on March 20, 2009.
In the early 1990s, widely publicized workplace shootings by disgruntled employees at USPS facilities led to a Human Resource effort to provide care for stressed workers and resources for coworker conflicts. Due to media coverage, postal employees gained a reputation among the general public as more likely to be mentally ill. The USPS Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace found that "Postal workers are only a third as likely as those in the national workforce to be victims of homicide at work." In the documentary Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal, it was argued that this number failed to factor out workers killed by external subjects rather than by fellow employees.
This series of events in turn has influenced American culture, as seen in the slang term "going postal" (see Patrick Sherrill for information on his August 20, 1986, rampage) and the computer game Postal. Also, in the opening sequence of Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult, a yell of "Disgruntled postal workers" is heard, followed by the arrival of postal workers with machine guns. In an episode of Seinfeld, the mailman character, Newman, explained in a dramatic monologue that postal workers "go crazy and kill everyone" because the mail never stops. In The Simpsons episode "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday," Nelson Muntz asks Postmaster Bill if he has "ever gone on a killing spree"; Bill replies, "The day of the gun-toting, disgruntled postman shooting up the place went out with the Macarena".
The series of massacres led the US Postal Service to issue a rule prohibiting the possession of any type of firearms (except for those issued to Postal Inspectors) in all designated USPS facilities.
In 2016, video footage was released showing a group of police officers from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) arresting a US Postal Service worker while he was in the middle of his deliveries. The footage showed that the officers were dressed in civilian clothing. The NYPD is reportedly investigating alleged disorderly conduct.
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- In the film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), the identity of Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn) as the one and only "Santa Claus" was validated by a state court, based on the delivery of 21 bags of mail (famously carried into the courtroom) to the character in question. The contention was that it would have been illegal for the United States Post Office to deliver mail that was addressed to "Santa Claus" to the character "Kris Kringle" unless he were, in fact, the one and only Santa Claus. Judge Henry X. Harper (played by Gene Lockhart) ruled that since the US Government had demonstrated through the delivery of the bags of mail that Kris Kringle was Santa Claus, the State of New York did not have the authority to overrule that decision.
- The novel Post Office (1971), written by poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, is a semi-autobiographical account of his life over the years as a mail carrier. Bukowski would, under duress, quit and years later return as a mail clerk. His personal account would detail the work at lengths as frustrating, menial, boring, and degrading.
- The novel Waiting for the Earthquake (1977) by Lawrence Swaim is about the 1970 postal strike from the point of view of a young union official in a postal union. The Postal Inspectors plant an informer in his union, and the novel revolves around the fallout from this action, as well as the social chaos and racial tensions in American society in 1970.
- David Brin's novel The Postman (1985) portrays the United States Postal Service and its returned services as a staple to revive the United States government in a post-apocalyptic world. It was adapted as a film starring Kevin Costner and Larenz Tate in 1997.
- The comedy film Dear God (1996), starring Greg Kinnear and Laurie Metcalf, portrays a group of quirky postal workers in a dead letter office that handle letters addressed to the Easter Bunny, Elvis, and even God himself.
- The Inspectors (1998) is a made for TV crime film about US Postal Inspectors and their exploits trying to catch a mailbomb suspect.
- The Inspectors 2: A Shred of Evidence (2002) is a sequel to the 1998 made for TV crime film.
- In 2015, The Inspectors, which depicts a group of postal inspectors investigating postal crimes, debuted on CBS. The series uses the USPIS seal and features messages and tips from the Chief Postal Inspector at the end of each episode.
- List of U.S. state abbreviations
- United States Postal Service creed
- USPS Post Office Box Lobby Recycling program
Unions of the U.S. Postal Service
- American Postal Workers Union
- National Association of Letter Carriers
- National Postal Mail Handlers Union
- National Rural Letter Carriers' Association
- American Letter Mail Company
- History of United States postage rates
- Owney (dog)
- Post Office Murals
- Postage stamps and postal history of the United States
- Railway Mail Service
Mail bag types
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- Styling for "M-bag" is inconsistent – the term is styled both as M-bag (with a hyphen) and M–bag (with an en-dash).
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Internal newsletters detailed a huge loss for the USPS in the failed delivery of packages sent from the USA via surface. Since the USPS cannot dictate how scores of different countries handle surface mail, and since it's agreements required the USPS to take back undeliverable parcels, the losses were mounting.
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The reason, probably, why no other dealers offer it: ... it is very difficult and time-consuming to do. Plus, there is no tracking, no insurance, and lots of complaints — as those packages can easily take 60 days to arrive.
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