PHILADELPHIA - For some of the 2,000 or so year-round residents of Deer Isle, Maine, the fraying American flag outside the post office this spring was a reminder of the nation’s mood.
The flag was in tatters. It twisted in the wind from a single hook. But it was stuck in the up position, so the postmistress hadn’t been able to replace it.
“I was thinking what a metaphor it is for our country right now,” community health director René Colson Hudson said. “It was really important that the flag be replaced, as a symbol of hope.”
Colson Hudson, a former New Jersey pastor who moved to coastal Maine a few years ago, posted an online plea on April 23 that sparked a community thread. Should someone scale the flagpole? Could the local tree-trimmer help? Did they need a bucket truck?
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By week’s end, a secret helper had gotten the flag down. Postmistress Stephanie Black soon had the new one flying high.
Colson Hudson, 54, had rarely visited her post office when she lived in suburban New Jersey. But in Deer Isle, people exchange small talk in the lobby, announce school events on the bulletin board and pick up medications and mail-in ballots — while postal workers keep an eye on everyone’s well-being.
“Here," she said, “it is the center of community.”
A struggle to flourish
Many of the nation’s 630,000 postal employees are facing new risks during the COVID-19 outbreak, as they sort mail or make daily rounds to reach people in far-flung locales. More than 2,000 of them have tested positive for the virus, and a union spokesman says 61 workers have died.
For most Americans, mail deliveries to homes or post boxes are their only routine contact with the federal government. It’s a service they seem to appreciate: The agency consistently earns “favorability” marks that top 90%.
Yet it’s not popular with one influential American: President Donald Trump, who has threatened to block the U.S. Postal Service from COVID-19 relief funding unless it quadruples the package rates it charges large customers like Amazon, owned by Jeff Bezos. Bezos also owns The Washington Post, whose coverage rankles Trump.
“He is willing to sacrifice the U.S. Postal Service and its 630,000 employees because of petty vindictiveness and personal retaliation against Jeff Bezos,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said last week. “That would be a tragic outcome.”
Postal Service officials, bracing for steep losses given the nationwide coronavirus shutdown, warn they’ll run out of money by September without help. They reported a $4.5 billion loss for the quarter ending March 31 — on $17.8 billion in revenue — before the full effects of the shutdown sank in.
Some in Congress want to set aside $25 billion from the nearly $3 trillion relief program to keep the mail flowing. But with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pushing Trump’s priorities, the Postal Service has so far landed just a $10 billion loan.
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“The Postal Service is a joke,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on April 24. “They’re handing out packages for Amazon and other internet companies and every time they bring a package, they lose money on it.”
Historically, the Postal Service has operated without public funds, even since a crushing 2006 law required it to pre-fund 75 years of retiree benefits. It’s been around longer than the nation itself, with a rich history that includes Benjamin Franklin's tenure as the first postmaster general.
This month, the USPS Board of Directors appointed Republican fundraiser Louis DeJoy to the post. He succeeds Megan Brennan, a career postal worker who is retiring.
The president insists higher package rates could ease the Postal Service's financial troubles. But most financial analysts disagree. They say customers would turn to UPS or FedEx.
Packages typically account for 5 percent of the Postal Service’s volume but 30 percent of its revenue. And package revenue has actually gone up during the shutdown. Still, it hasn’t been enough to restore profitability, battered during the internet age by the decline of first-class mail.
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, with 200,000 members, fears the Trump administration wants to destabilize the agency and then sell it off.
With more than 30 million Americans suddenly out of work, he wonders why anyone would put "600,000 good, living-wage jobs” at risk. Those Postal Service jobs have moved generations of Americans, especially blacks and minorities, firmly into the middle class.
Yet the president, Dimondstein said, wants to privatize the operation when “here you have the post office serving the people of this country in maybe a deeper way than we ever have.”
A 55-cent journey to Isle au Haut
On Henrietta Dixon’s mail route in North Philadelphia, every house has a story. Dixon seems to know them all.
Alvin Fields moved back to his block of two-story row homes after 40 years working for Verizon. Jason Saal, 40, lives in an abandoned factory he bought for an art studio, but now hopes to make industrial-grade masks there.
Sharae Cunningham is also making masks, but the hand-sewn kind, some with African prints she sells for $6.
All said they would miss the Postal Service if it collapsed.
“It’s nice to have mail delivered by a letter carrier,” said Saal, who mailed out two boxes of masks through Dixon one recent morning and gave her several free ones. “It’s the person that you see, a government worker, every day, Monday to Sunday."
They agreed the neighborhood, one of Philadelphia's poorest, would benefit from the kind of expanded services — such as low-fee check cashing and wifi — that's the norm in Europe and might help U.S. post offices survive.
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“That’d be a great service. A lot of people need to cash checks,” said Cunningham, 40, who helps care for chronically ill parents, four children and a grandchild.
Dixon, who lives nearby, has been with the post office for nearly 30 years, the last nine on her current route. Fields called her “absolutely wonderful.”
Her route, in a dense city neighborhood, might be attractive to private companies itching to compete with the Postal Service. But the same 55-cent stamp that takes a letter across town can also get one to the Pacific Northwest, rural Appalachia or islands off the coasts of Alaska, California and Maine. That’s because of the USPS pledge to offer “universal service” to everyone in the United States, no matter what it takes.
“For the American psyche, it’s one of the last places where we are all equal. We all have the right to a 55-cent letter and mail delivery six days a week,” said Evan Kalish, 30, of Queens, New York, a postal enthusiast who’s documented thousands of post office visits on his blog, Postlandia.
A few miles south of Deer Isle, Postmistress Donna DeWitt walks down to a boat dock each morning to retrieve her plastic bins from the 7 a.m. mail boat and carts it up to the tiny Isle au Haut Post Office a few hundred feet away.
With no bridge to the mainland and wifi and cell phone service on the island spotty, mail service is essential to the 70 or so year-round residents, who mostly work in the fishing and lobstering trades.
“I don’t think you’d find most of the old-timers, for instance, paying their bills online. They depend on the mail for all of their business transactions,” said George Cole, the volunteer president of Isle au Haut Boat Services, a nonprofit that brings the mail over on the 45-minute trip from Stonington.
The ferry service gets most of its revenue from summer tourists, but the small USPS contract helps.
“If we lost it, it would be very painful," Cole said. “We’ve carried the mail for 50 years.”
Death notices, plants and pumpkin rolls
Filmmaker Tom Quinn set out to make a movie about a town that lost its zip code — and its place on the map — in a round of USPS closures in 2011. The film became a study in loneliness.
“I started to understand what this is about,” said Quinn, speaking of his 2019 film “Colewell,” set in a fictional small town on the New York-Pennsylvania border.
In places like those, he said, the post office serves as the town's living room — a gathering spot for conversation, for human contact, for community.
“When this hub is there, you run into people by accident,” said Quinn, who teaches film at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “It’s the same thing about Zoom and teaching. None of those accidental interactions happen anymore."
In rural Fayette County, West Virginia, Susan Williams fondly recalls postmistresses who left homemade pumpkin roll out for customers, posted a note in the lobby when someone died and kept her mail-order geraniums alive.
“If I thought these plants were going to arrive while we were away, she would just open the boxes and water them for us,” said Williams, a retired journalist and teacher who lives in Falls View, about 35 miles east of Charleston.
With no home delivery there, she treks two miles to Charlton Heights to get her mail, trying to arrive after it gets put up at 10:30 a.m. and before the post office closes at noon. On a recent day in late April, her box held her mail-in ballot for the presidential primary. She planned to return it the next day.
“It means everything,” Williams said of the Postal Service.
Back in Maine, Colson Hudson likes to take the mail boat over to Eagle Island in the summer (year-round population 2; seasonal, perhaps 40) to visit friends. She once took a picture of the mail bag, musing about who its contents would connect.
“All these people come flocking down at the time the boat comes with the mail,” she said. “There’s something in that bag that they’re waiting for, that they’re hoping for.”
Associated Press reporter Matthew Daly contributed from Washington.