Thirty-five years ago, Patrick Donahoe was awoken on a Saturday morning by a phone call from his mailman uncle telling him to get out of bed and “go take the test.”
The 20-year old University of Pittsburgh junior took and passed the U.S. Postal Service hiring exam and landed a job that paid $4.76 per hour.
“I went in with the idea of staying a few years then go out and get a regular job, and 35 years later, I’m still here,” Mr. Donahoe said, not long before taking the oath of office Friday as the 73rd postmaster general of the United States.
He takes over an agency in the midst of its worst ever financial crisis. The organization faces multibillion-dollar deficits, declining mail volume and a looming $5.5 billion bill due by the end of the year to prefund retiree health benefits that the Postal Service can’t afford to pay.
Though Mr. Donahoe took the oath of office last week, he’s been acting in the position for weeks following the resignation of former Postmaster General John Potter. Mr. Donahoe recently announced a move to cut 7,500 administrative positions, including 2,000 postmasters nationwide.
“We are looking for every opportunity to control costs and raise revenue,” he said.
Mr. Donahoe said a major issue for him is to reduce wait times in post offices. He said he recently told clerks they’re no longer required to ask customers in line whether they need various postal offerings, such as express service or certified mail. All those questions were keeping customers in line longer, he said.
“It’s like, ‘Do you want fries with that?’” he said. “We ended up asking the customers a lot of the same questions … and I thought it was kind of embarrassing to the employees so we told people, ‘Stop doing that.’
“We told the clerks, ‘You’re smart people, you ask the right questions.’”
Another historical cause of long lines is scheduling and staffing. As people take their lunch breaks and come into the post office to send mail, postal workers are taking their lunch break, too, he said.
“Making sure you get the staffing right is critical,” he said.
One of the biggest immediate challenges facing Mr. Donahoe is the $5.5 billion payment due by the end of the year to prefund retiree health benefits. He said he’s hoping for help from Congress and the White House. One possibility is to recover about $6.9 billion that the Postal Service has overpaid into the Federal Employees Retirement System, then using the money to make the retiree health benefit payment.
Just as critical in the long term is figuring out ways to increase revenue, he said.
Saying he wants a “leaner, smarter, faster” Postal Service, Mr. Donahoe said, “I need to get out and sell this business. It’s critical.” He said he and other top postal executives plan to meet with 100 of the top advertisers in the U.S. to drum up business for the Postal Service.