United States Postal Service

United States Postal Service
United States Postal Service
Type Independent agency of the United States government
Industry Courier
Founded July 26, 1775
Philadelphia, PA
Headquarters 475 L'Enfant Plaza SW
Washington, D.C. 20260-2202
Key people Patrick R. Donahoe, United States Postmaster General
Products First-class and domestic mail, logistics
Revenue decrease US$ 65.71 billion (2011)[1]
Operating income decrease US$ −4.92 billion (2011)
Net income decrease US$ −5.1 billion (2011)
Employees 574,000(2011 Career Employees)[2]
Parent Government of the United States
Website USPS.com
Full eagle logo, used in various versions from 1970 to 1993

The United States Postal Service (also known as USPS, the Post Office or U.S. Mail) is an independent agency of the United States government responsible for providing postal service in the United States. It is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution.

The USPS traces its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress, where Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. The cabinet-level Post Office Department was created in 1792 from Franklin's operation and transformed into its current form in 1971 under the Postal Reorganization Act.

The USPS has not directly received taxpayer-dollars since the early 1980s with the minor exception of subsidies for costs associated with the disabled and overseas voters. Revenue in the 2000s has been dropping sharply due to declining mail volume,[3] prompting the postal service to look to other sources of revenue while cutting costs to reduce its budget deficit.[4]

The USPS employs over 574,000 workers and operates over 218,000 vehicles. It is the 48th-largest employer in the United States. The USPS is the operator of the largest vehicle fleet in the world.[5] The USPS is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality. The USPS has exclusive access to letter boxes marked "U.S. Mail" and personal letterboxes in the United States, but still competes against private package delivery services, such as UPS and FedEx.



Running pony logo used by the U.S. Post Office Department before the creation of the USPS

The first postal service in America arose in February 1692, when a grant from King William & Queen Mary empowered Thomas Neale "to erect, settle and establish within the chief parts of their majesties' colonies and plantations in America, an office or offices for the 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."[6]

The United States Post Office (USPO) was created in Philadelphia under Benjamin Franklin on Wednesday, July 26, 1775, by decree of the Second Continental Congress. Based on the Postal Clause in Article One of the United States Constitution, empowering Congress "To establish post offices and post roads", it became the Post Office Department (USPOD) in 1792. Until 1971, it was part of the Presidential cabinet and the Postmaster General was the last person in the United States presidential line of succession.

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.[7]

Ten years before waterways were declared post roads in 1823, the Post Office used steamboats to carry mail between post towns where no roads existed.[citation needed] 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.[8] 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.[9]

~ Benjamin Franklin ~ George Washington ~
The First U.S. Postage Stamps
Issued 1847
The first stamp issues were authorized by an act of Congress and approved on March 3, 1847.[10] The earliest known use of the Franklin 5c is July 7, 1847, while the earliest known use of the Washington 10c is July 2, 1847. Remaining in postal circulation for only a few years, these issues were declared invalid for Postage on July 1, 1851.[11]

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 NYC, 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 travelling 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 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, the first transcontinental railroad, providing service from the east coast across the Isthmus to California in three weeks for the mails, passengers and goods, and 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.[8] Rail cars designed to sort and distribute mail while rolling were soon introduced.[8] 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.[12] The advent of rural free delivery in the U.S. in 1896, and the inauguration of parcel post service in 1913 greatly increased the volume of mail shipped nationwide, and motivated the development of more efficient postal transportation systems.[13]

On August 12, 1918, the Post Office Department took over air mail service from the U.S. 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. The Post Office Department used mostly World War I military surplus 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.[14] 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, indecent or which promoted abortion issues, contraception, or alcohol consumption.[15]

The Postal Reorganization Act signed by President Richard Nixon on August 12, 1970, replaced the cabinet-level Post Office Department with the independent United States Postal Service. The Act took effect on July 1, 1971.

On May 11, 2009, the price of a First-Class Mail stamp rose to 44 cents.[16]

Current operations

USPS service delivery truck

The United States Postal Service employs some 574,000 workers, making it the second-largest[5] civilian employer in the United States (excluding the federal government), following only Wal-Mart.[17] 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."[18] As of 2011, the USPS operates 31,000 post offices and locations in the U.S., and delivers 177 billion pieces of mail annually.[5]

The USPS operates the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world, with an estimated 218,684 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).[5] For every penny increase in the national average price of gasoline, the USPS spends an extra $8 million per year to fuel its fleet.[19] The number of gallons of fuel used in 2009 was 444 million, at a cost of US$1.1 billion.[5] 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.

Fleet of post office vehicles at the James Griffith Station in Spring Branch, Houston

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).

Revenue decline

Declining mail volume is a symptom of the weak national economy[citation needed], particularly related to the financial and housing industries, and to trends toward the use of electronic mail. In addition to the weak or contracting economy and the diversion of mail to electronic means, the pre-funding of retiree health benefits continues to have a significant impact on Postal Service finances.[20][21] First-Class mail volume (which is protected by legal monopoly) peaked in 2001[22]and has declined 29% from 1998 to 2008, due to the increasing use of email and the World Wide Web for correspondence and business transactions.[23] Lower volume means lower revenues to support the fixed commitment to deliver to every address once a day, six days a week. In response, the USPS has increased productivity each year from 2000 to 2007,[21] through increased automation, route re-optimization, and facility consolidation.[23] Despite these efforts, the organization saw an $8.5 billion budget shortfall in 2010.[24]

To cut costs, the U.S. Postal Service proposes to close as many as 3,700 small post offices and replacing some of them as 'village post offices' to offer the most basic mail services at lower costs inside such places as grocery stores and drugstores with signs -'Village Post Office'- in the window since August 2011. The Postal Service will pay Mini-mart about $2,000 a year. One benefit of the new policy is service hours which are longer than the old post office.[25]

Other plans

In October 2008, the Postal Service released Vision 2013,[26] a five-year plan required by law starting in 1993.[27] One planned improvement is the introduction of the Intelligent Mail Barcode, which will allow pieces of mail to be tracked through the delivery system, as competitors like UPS and FedEx currently do.

Governance and organization

USPS headquarters at L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C.

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. §§ 202203). 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 USPS is often mistaken for a government-owned corporation (e.g., Amtrak) because it operates much like a business, but as noted above, it is legally defined as an "independent 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 quasi-governmental 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.[28] 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."[29]

The Postal Service also has a Mailers' Technical Advisory Committee and local Postal Customer Councils, which are advisory and primarily involve business customers.[30]

Universal service obligation and monopoly status

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 mail. Accordingly, no other system for delivering mail – public or private – can be established, absent Congress's consent.[citation needed] Congress has delegated to the Postal Service the power to decide whether others may compete with it, and the Postal Service has allowed an exception to its monopoly for extremely urgent letters.

The mission of the Postal Service is to provide the American public with trusted universal postal service at affordable prices. 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 at affordable rates.

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 have an impact on 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. As the operating environment of the Postal Service continues to change, additional flexibilities will likely be necessary to fulfill the USO.

Some proponents 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 organization or company motivated by profit 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 employee's being much less likely to be instructed by superiors to engage in nefarious action related to communications between persons, organizations or competitors in all nature of associations. It is seen by some 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.

Critics of universal service principles 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.[31] Rick Geddes argued in 2000:[32]

  • 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.

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:[33]

'"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."[34]

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[35] 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.

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.

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.

During hearings held earlier this year, the PRC also heard from mailers, mailing associations, and postal unions and management associations. Comments generally indicated that changes are not currently needed.


USPS Terminal Annex building in Los Angeles

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 US 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.[36]

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.[37]

From 1982 to 1985 Electronic Computer Originated Mail 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 ECOM logo. Delivery was assured within 2 days.[38]

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.[39]

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.[40]

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, Senateconfirmed 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.

Elements of addressing and preparing domestic mail

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).[41] 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[42] & weight, acceptable mailing containers, proper mailpiece sealing/closure, utilization of various markings, and restrictions relating to various hazardous (e.g., explosives, flammables, etc.) & restricted (e.g., cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, etc.) materials, as well as others articulated in § 601 of the DMM.[43]

The USPS specifies the following key elements when preparing the face of a mailpiece:

  1. 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.[44] Preferred placement of a return address is in the upper left portion of the mailpiece—on the side of the piece bearing postage.[45] 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.[46]
  2. 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.[47]
  3. 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 most all postal services (e.g., all parcel services, Priority Mail, Express Mail, Periodicals in envelopes or wrappers, Insured Mail, Registered Mail, etc.).[48]
  4. 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).[49] Members of the U.S. Congress, among others, have franking privileges, which only require a signature.

Domestic first-class mail costs 44¢ for envelopes (29¢ for post cards) and upwards, depending on the weight and dimensions of the letter and the class.

Undeliverable mails that cannot be readily returned, including those without return addresses, are treated as dead mails at a Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia or Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Sticker promoting ZIP code use.
The formatting 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
John Q. Public
PORTLAND OR 97086-1234

The USPS maintains a list of proper abbreviations.[50]

The formatting of a return address is identical. Though some style manuals do 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 appropriate 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.[51]

Customers can look up ZIP codes on usps.com, and purchase postage if they have an account.

Paying postage

The actual postage can be paid via:[52]

  • Stamps purchased online, 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[53]
  • 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.[54][55] Britain has had a similar stamp since 1989. However, one of the tenets of the Universal Postal Union is having a single flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the world, which is true for Britain (since 1995), but not the U.S. The cost of mailing a 1 oz (28 g) First-Class letter increased to 44 cents on May 11.

Postage meters

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.

PC postage

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.[56] Authorized providers of PC Postage are listed below (many others--such as Amazon--are secondary providers, which use one of the authorized providers to do the actual service):[57]

Other electronic postage payment methods

Electronic Verification System (eVS)[58] 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!,[59] 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.[60] Following the creation of the United States Postal Service, the United States Copyright Office in section 206.02(b) of the Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices holds that "Works of the U.S. Postal Service, as now constituted, are not considered U.S. Government works."[61] Here, the U.S. Copyright Office has clarified that works of the U.S. Postal Service, of the government of the District of Columbia, or of the government of Puerto Rico are not "works of the U.S. government" and thus are subject to copyright. Thus, postal service 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."[62]

Service level choices

General domestic services

Tyvek envelope for Express Mail

Domestic postage includes Monday through Saturday delivery (excepting federal holidays) to any address, Post Office Box, or general delivery Post Office in the United States, or any U.S. military mail destination.

The Post Office will not deliver packages heavier than 70 lb (31.8 kg) or if the two largest dimensions (length and width) are greater than 108 inches (274 cm) combined. Other carriers handle packages that do not meet these conditions. Mail sent at a level other than First-Class (such as Second Class or Third Class), will not be forwarded or returned to sender, unless an additional fee is paid; "return service requested" may need to appear on the outside of the item. Deliveries outside the contiguous United States may take longer.

As of April 2011, domestic postage levels for low-volume mailers include:

  • Express Mail – "Overnight Guaranteed" to most locations[63]
    • Sunday and holiday delivery available for additional charge
    • $100 insurance included
    • Tracking included
    • Flat rate envelope available. Otherwise, variable pricing by weight, size, and ZIP code.
  • Priority Mail – 2 or 3-day service (not guaranteed)[63]
    • Flat rate envelope and boxes (various sizes) available. Otherwise, variable pricing by weight, size, and ZIP code.
  • First-Class Mail
    • Fast service (2–3 days)[63] for letters and small packages
    • Flat rate depending on size and weight
      • Cards (up to 5" x 3.5" x 0.007" [127 x 89 x 0.18 mm]): 29¢
      • Letters (up to 11.5" x 6.125" x 0.25", 3.5 oz [292 x 156 x 6.4 mm, 100 g]): 44¢ + 20¢ each additional ounce
      • Large Envelope or Flat (up to 15" x 12" x 0.75", 13 oz [381 x 305 x 19 mm, 370 g]): 88¢ + 20¢ each add'l ounce (28 g). Must be rectangular, uniformly thick, and not too rigid.
      • Package/Parcel (Up to 108" [274 cm] length + width, 13 oz [370 g]): $1.71 + 17¢ each add'l ounce (28 g) over 3 ounces (84 g)
  • Parcel Post
    • Slowest but cheapest service for packages – 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)[63]
    • Variable pricing by weight and ZIP code
    • 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
    • Flat rate 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.

Bulk mail

USPS Dodge Caravan used for residential delivery in Omaha, Nebraska

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 3-digit ZIP code prefix, 5-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:

  • Periodicals
  • Standard Mail (A)
    • Automation
    • Enhanced Carrier Route
    • Regular
  • Standard Mail (B)
    • Parcel Post
    • Bound Printed Matter – Cheaper than Media Mail, for advertising catalogs, phone books, etc. up to 15 lb[64]
    • Special Standard Mail
    • Library Mail
    • Nonprofit

Add-on services

Depending on the type of mail, additional services are available for an additional fee:[65]

  • Certificate of Mailing – Proof of the date a package was mailed.
  • Delivery Confirmation – Provides proof of delivery to sorting facilities, local post office and destination, but no signature is required.
  • Signature Confirmation – Delivery requires a signature, which is kept on file. The online tracking system displays the first initial and last name of the signatory.
  • Return Receipt – Actively sends Signature Confirmation information back to the sender by postcard or emailed PDF (as opposed to merely putting this information into the online tracking system).
  • Insurance against loss or damage, for the value of the goods mailed. Amount of coverage can be specified, up to $5000.
  • 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.
  • Restricted Delivery – Requires delivery to a specific person or their authorized agent, not just to a mailbox.
  • Collect On Delivery (C.O.D.) – Allows merchants to offer customers an option to pay upon delivery, up to $1000. Includes insurance.
  • Special Handling – For unusual items, like live animals.
  • Registered Mail – Used for highly valuable or irreplaceable items, and classified information up to the "secret" level.[66] Registered mail is transported separately from other mail, in locked containers. Tracking is included and insurance up to $25,000 is available.[67]

Postal money orders

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 check 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.[68] Money orders are a declining business for the USPS, as companies like PayPal, PaidByCash and others are offering electronic replacements.

From 1911 to 1966, the Postal Service also operated a savings program, not unlike a savings and loan association with the amount of the deposit limited.[69]

International services

In May 2007, the USPS restructured international service names to correspond with domestic shipping options. Formerly, USPS International services[70] 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,[71][72] 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).[73] 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. Ironically, the USPS provides much of this service by contracting with a private parcel service, FedEx.[74]

On May 14, 2007, the USPS canceled all outgoing international surface mail (sometimes known as "sea mail") from the United States, citing increased costs and reduced demand due to competition from airmail services such as FedEx and UPS.[75] The decision has been criticized by the Peace Corps and military personnel overseas, as well as independent booksellers and other small businesses who rely on international deliveries.

The USPS provides an M-bag[76] service for international shipment of printed matter;[77] previously surface M-bags existed, but with the 2007 elimination of surface mail, only airmail M-bags remain.[78] 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";[77] 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.[79] 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.[63]

Airline and rail division

The United States Postal Service does not directly own or operate any aircraft or trains. The mail and packages are flown on airlines with which the Postal Service has a contractual agreement. The contracts change periodically. Depending on the contract, aircraft may be painted with the USPS paint scheme.[citation needed] Contract airlines have included: UPS, Emery Worldwide, Ryan International Airlines, FedEx Express, Rhoades Aviation, 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.[80] This decision has been reversed by the U.S. Postmaster General.[81]

Sorting and delivery process

Mail Flow through National Infrastructure

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. The tubs are taken to a Processing and Distribution Center (P&DC). There are approximately 275 such centers across the United States, which sort mail for a given region (typically a radius of around 200 miles) and connect with the national network for interregional mail.[82]

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 (i.e. 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.

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 Dead Letter Offices, originated by Benjamin Franklin in the 1770s[citation needed]) where it receives more intense scrutiny, including being opened to determine if any of the contents are a clue. If no valid address can be determined, the items are held for 90 days in case of inquiry by the customer; and if they are not claimed then 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 System that reads the bar code and determines the destination of the mailpiece to postal stations.

Regional mail is 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 the items into their local destinations, including grouping them by individual mail carrier.

At the carrier route level, 95% of letters arrive pre-sorted;[82] 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".[83]

Types of postal facilities

Historic main post office in Tomah, Wisconsin.
A typical post office station in the Spring Branch area of Houston, Texas
Combined Post Office, Customs House, and Federal Court House in Galveston, Texas.

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, 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, a postal facility that is not the main post office and that is outside the corporate limits of the community.
  • A classified unit, a station or branch operated by USPS employees in a facility owned or leased by the USPS.
  • A contract postal unit (or CPU), a station or branch operated by a contractor, typically in a store or other place of business.[84]
  • A community post office (or CPO), a contract postal unit providing services in a small community in which other types of post office facilities have been discontinued.
  • A finance unit, a station or branch that provides window services and accepts mail, but does not provide delivery.
  • A processing and distribution center (P&DC, or processing and distribution facility, formerly known as a General Mail Facility), a central mail facility that processes and dispatches incoming and outgoing mail to and from a designated service area. (275 nationwide.)[82]
  • An international service center (ISC), 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.[85]
  • A sectional center facility (SCF), a P&DC for a designated geographical area defined by one or more three-digit ZIP code prefixes.
  • A network distribution center, formerly known as a bulk mail center (BMC), a central mail facility that processes bulk rate parcels as the hub in a hub and spoke network.
  • An auxiliary sorting facility (ASF), a central mail facility that processes bulk rate parcels as spokes in a hub and spoke network.
  • A remote encoding center (REC), 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 5 centers in April 2009. In 2010, there will be just two remaining RECs open, in Salt Lake City, Utah and Wichita, Kansas. More closures will occur as computer software becomes more able to read most addresses, but a few centers are expected to remain open (see Evolutionary Network Development below).
A 24-hour Automated Postal Center kiosk inside the Webster, Texas Main Post Office
  • A village post office (VPO), a post office concept beginning in 2011, village post offices are an integral part of the USPS plan to close low volume post offices. Many of these will be replaced with village post offices that will fill the role of the post office within that zip code and be located in local business or government centers and operated by those entities as specified in the contract negotiated between the entity and USPS.[86]

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.[84] 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.[87][88] There are approximately 36,000 post offices, stations, and branches in the USPS retail system.[89] Temporary stations are also set up for applying pictorial cancellations.

Automated Postal Centers

In 2004 the USPS began deploying Automated Postal Centers (APC).[90] 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. Similarly, traditional vending machines are available at many post offices to purchase stamps, though these are being phased out in many areas.[91] 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.[92]

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:[93]

  • 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.

Final delivery

USPS contractor-driven semi-trailer truck seen near Mendota, California
USPS Ford Windstar used for residential delivery in Olympia, Washington

Delivery days

Until 1912, mail was delivered seven days a week. As the postal service grew in popularity and usage in the 19th century, 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.[94][95]

Because of this intervention by the government, U.S. Mail (with the exception of Express Mail)[96] 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[94] and where U.S. Mail is delivered Sunday through Friday, with the exception of observed federal holidays.

Saturday delivery was temporarily suspended in April 1957, because of lack of funds, but quickly restored.[97][98] On January 28, 2009, Postmaster General John E. Potter testified before the Senate[99] that, if the Postal Service could not readjust its payment toward the pre-funding of retiree health benefits, as mandated by the Postal Accountability & Enhancement Act of 2006,[100] 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, PMG Potter has continued to unveil a plan to eliminate Saturday mail delivery. The universal service obligation[101] and six day delivery are upheld by Congressional language within Appropriations legislation, so a reduction in service would require action from the House and Senate.[102]

On June 10, 2009, the NRLCA was contacted for its input on the USPS's current study of the impact 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 impact of five-day delivery with no business or collections on Saturday, with Post Offices with current Saturday hours remaining open.

Chairman José Serrano (DNY), of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which oversees language mandating six day service, said "While I understand the seriousness of the Postal Service's fiscal issues, I remain supportive of a six day delivery schedule. I will be in conversations in coming weeks with the senior postal leadership and the postal unions in an effort to avoid service cuts."

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.[103]

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.[104] The number of routes served expanded over time. In 1891, the first experiments with Rural Free Delivery began in less densely populated areas.

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.[105] 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.[104] 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).[106] 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 only receive mail through post office boxes. High-volume business customers can also arrange for special pick-up.[107][108]

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.[109] People with medical problems can request door-to-door delivery.[110] Homeless people are also eligible for post office boxes at the discretion of the local postmaster, or can use general delivery.[111]

Special 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.

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,[112] where mail is subsorted by non-Post Office employees into individual mailboxes.

Employment in the USPS

A Rural Letter Carrier from Fort Myers, Florida

The Postal Service is the nation's second-largest civilian employer, after Wal-Mart.[113] As of 2011, it employed 574,000 personnel, divided into offices, processing centers, and actual post offices.

Labor unions representing USPS employees include the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), which represents city letter carriers, the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association (NRLCA), which represents rural letter carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU), which represents mail handlers, and the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which represents clerks, maintenance employees, and motor vehicle service workers. While union membership is voluntary, city carriers are organized near 90% nationally.

USPS employees are divided into three major crafts according to the work they engage in:

  • Mail carriers, also referred to as mailmen 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 the potential for overtime. City Carriers are also subject to "undertime" on a daily basis[citation needed]. "Pivoting" is when a Carrier's assigned route will take less than 8 hours to complete. Management may "pivot" the Carrier to work on another route to fill that Carrier up to 8 hours. Pivoting is a tool postal management uses to redistribute and eliminate overtime costs, based on consultation with the Carrier about his/her estimated workload for the day and mail volume projections from the DOIS (Delivery Operations Information System) computer program. City Carrier routes are adjusted and/ or eliminated based on information (length, time, and overall workload) also controlled by this program, consultations with the Carrier assigned to the route, and a current PS Form 3999 (street observation by a Postal supervisor to determine accurate times spent on actual delivery of mail).
  • Rural carriers are under a form of salary called "evaluated hours", usually with overtime built in to 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, who prepare mail and parcels for delivery.
  • Clerks, who directly handle customer needs and sort standard and bulk-rate mail. Data Conversion Operators, who encode address information at Remote Encoding Centers, are also members of the clerk craft.

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.
  • Transitional employees (TEs), who are hired for terms of 360 days (with the option of appointment to another 360 day term after a 5 day break), are given the same hourly base pay as a Part Time Flexible carrier, but receive no benefits other than annual leave. Transitional employees may be released by the USPS upon completion of their 360 day term, lack of work, or for "just cause" and can be represented by the NALC.
  • Career, Part Time Flexible and Transitional employees (Career, PTF & TE DCOs) at a remote encoding center are still under clerks category but under a different contract than a plant worker or mail carrier and, therefore, are also under a different union (APWU) than the above mentioned Career, TEs and PTFs. There are several differences between working as a carrier or plant worker VS. working at a REC. Even pay is different.

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.[114]

Violence as "going postal"

In the early 1990s, widely publicized workplace shootings by disgruntled employees at USPS facilities led to a postal regulation that prohibits the possession of firearms in all postal facilities. 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."[115]

This stereotype 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 character Newman, who is a mailman, 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", with a reply of, "The day of the disgruntled postman went out with the Macarena".

In fiction

  • In the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, 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 was, 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.
  • In the TV series Seinfeld, Newman is an employee at the USPS, which is portrayed in the series as a powerful, nefarious organization. He claims that ZIP codes are meaningless;[episode needed] no mail carrier has successfully delivered more than 50% of their mail (a feat he compares to the 3-minute mile);[episode needed] and that several postal workers go on killing sprees because, as he puts it, "the mail never stops".[episode needed] In one episode, Cosmo Kramer is abducted by Post Office security men for running an anti-mail campaign after he realizes the Postal Service has become obsolete.[episode needed]
  • The TV series Cheers featured John Ratzenberger as Cliff Clavin, a USPS worker and a regular in the bar. Ratzenberger, along with the rest of the show's cast, appears in an induction video for U.S. Postal Services staff.[citation needed]

See also

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