Cheree Andringa

THE POSTAL SERVICE made national headlines this week as the postmaster general pleaded with US Congress for a break: The 236-year-old public agency faces potential extinction if it can't patch its $5.5 billion budget gap. While some cynics write off snail mail, the severe cuts proposed to save the US Postal Service (USPS) will cause real problems in Oregon.

Portlander Joe Cogan has worked for the postal service for 27 years and is in a bit of shock.

"It doesn't make sense to me," says Cogan, who is vice president of Portland's postal workers union. "We just negotiated a national contract in May—how has the budget changed that much?"

There are 1,100 people in Portland's postal union, which covers 80 percent of the city's postal workers. Those workers are left in limbo as Congress and the postal service hash out a deal for our mail system, but the current outlook calls for laying off 20 percent of postal workers. Even with the cuts, postal workers' long-envied federal retirement and medical benefits will likely be sliced.

Cogan says he has seen a lot of monetary waste over his time with USPS, and says that bureaucratic waste is likely leading to the current financial pinch. Instead of making such severe cutbacks, he suggests the USPS turns to ad revenue—which is currently illegal for the postal service—as well as creating a banking system like many international postal systems.

"We have other options, it shouldn't have to come to this," Cogan says.

Postal workers aren't the only ones threatened by the looming changes.

Across the state, the postal service is threatening to close down post offices in 41 small towns. Debbie Neuman is the city recorder for the Eastern Oregon town of Ukiah, population 250, whose doomed post office sits in the center of town. Ukiah is four and a half hours from Portland, but a world away technologically. Residents depend on the mail for shopping (Ukiah is 35 miles from the next town), receiving money orders, and—for many residents without the internet—staying in touch with the outside world.

Neuman says she doesn't understand why Ukiah's only office was selected for closure as soon as December.

"It's the little places that depend on the post offices the most," she says. "Why must we be punished?"

This week, the US House of Representatives offered to add 90 extra days to the postal service's September 30 deadline in order to sort out its current financial quandary. Nonetheless, its fate seems sealed.