The postal policy of the U.S. government is codified at 39 U.S.C. § 101(a), which states that the U.S. Postal Service "shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States." Thus, while the COVID-19 pandemic is causing severe disruption to our lives and to many of our clients' business operations, commercial and nonprofit mailers should experience a relative degree of continuity in their relationship with the Postal Service. Here is a brief update on Postal Service developments for mailers.
Mail processed and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service is safe. On March 23, 2020, the Postal Service issued a service alert stating that the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Surgeon General have indicated that "there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail."
Moreover, the WHO has determined that the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low, and that the risk of catching the novel coronavirus from a package that has been moved, traveled, and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low. The WHO's guidance applies to mail transport equipment as well.
In nearly all respects, U.S. Postal Service operations are continuing as normal. The Postal Service has reported experiencing "only minor operational impacts" in the U.S. from the COVID-19 pandemic. International mailers can expect delays in mail and packages delivered to and from China and certain European countries subject to restricted airline travel, but in general the Postal Service is operating its business as usual.
At the same time, an increasing number of states – most recently Maryland and Massachusetts – have ordered all nonessential businesses to close. In order to make clear that members of the postal supply chain are not subject to state-imposed business and personal restrictions, the Postal Service issued an "Essential Industry Letter" on March 22. This letter explains that the provision of postal services is deemed an essential function under federal law during times of emergency, and that postal and shipping workers (including those in the private sector) are considered critical infrastructure workers under Administration guidance. We understand that the Postal Service is currently working to notify the states of the essential and critical status of all members of the postal supply chain.
Postal Rates and Regulations
Currently, FY2020 postage rates remain in effect. We have heard reports, however, that the Postal Service is looking at opportunities to reduce postage rates or to provide incentives to certain categories of mailers in order to help preserve their mail volume. If true, this would be a welcome development – particularly for mailers of market dominant mail pieces, such as First-Class mail, commercial and nonprofit Marketing Mail, and Periodicals.
The Postal Service has also shown some flexibility regarding mailing standards and requirements. For instance, it has implemented a system for Periodicals mailers to submit notifications that they will not be publishing at their stated frequency as a result of COVID-19. Mailers and industry associations are currently engaged with the Postal Service regarding potential waivers of similar requirements.
The Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) is now considering major proposed changes to the system of market dominant mail ratemaking that, if implemented, would drive prices significantly higher and hurt mailers. Numerous trade associations representing mailers have asked the PRC to hold its ratemaking review in abeyance until the government's COVID-19 emergency declaration has ended. Any effort to reduce postage rates during this pandemic and/or postpone the PRC's review of the market dominant rate system until the current crisis subsides would provide sensible and much-needed relief to commercial and nonprofit mailers.
Special Considerations for Nonprofit Mailers
In times of crisis the use of mail by nonprofit organizations can be even more critical. For example, nonprofits may be increasing their use of the mail to conduct fundraising campaigns to support charitable projects. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the ability of Americans to vote by mail in this November's federal elections while some states are allowing voting by mail in upcoming primaries. Nonprofit mailers will want to keep abreast of state and federal legislative developments in this area and should also remain mindful that state charity regulators typically increase their scrutiny of charitable solicitation conduct during times of crisis.
If you are a large-volume mailer or a mail service provider and have any questions pertaining to postal issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact the authors or your regular Venable contact.