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March 7 2011 12:37 PM

Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, urged a women's leadership gathering to use its extensive knowledge of postal issues and its vast supply of energy to push for reform of the Postal Service, a vital part of the nation's communications infrastructure and the linchpin of a $1 trillion mailing industry.

"As leaders who are intimately familiar with the issues facing the Postal Service, I welcome your feedback and input on my legislation and look forward to continuing to work with you as the bill moves through the legislative process," Senator Collins said in a February speech to the quarterly meeting of the Women in Logistics and Delivery Services (WILDS), a nonprofit organization created to promote women's leadership in the postal and delivery industries.

Collins moved easily between postal issues and broader "women in leadership" issues in her address to a capacity crowd in the Senate Hart Office Building just steps from the Capitol. She thanked the women who came before her for breaking many glass ceilings, especially Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman elected to the House or Senate.

"From the high vantage point history provides, it may seem that the path to equality has been one unbroken trail of progress, of impediments cleared and obstacles surmounted by a succession of resolute women. Here in the 21st Century, we enjoy that view because we stand on the shoulders of giants," she said.

To the postal, logistics and delivery industries, Senator Collins has been a trailblazer in her own right. She was a key architect of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, the first major reform of the Postal Service in more than 30 years. The act provided tools to modernize the Postal Service, including an overhaul of the rate-setting process. She joked that she didn't plan to work on postal reform for another 30 years, but here she is again attempting to tackle the big issues that plague the Postal Service.

The "Great Recession," which hurt mail volumes and postage revenue, the Postal Service's high operating costs and the continued diversion to electronic communications "have undermined the Postal Service's ability to remain solvent," Collins noted. She said her legislation, the U.S. Postal Service Improvements Act, attempts to tackle some of these difficult issues.

Specifically, her bill would help remedy the more than $50 billion - by one estimate -- the Postal Service has overpaid into the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and nearly $3 billion into the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS).

"I have led the charge on trying to push the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to use its existing authority to remedy the CSRS overpayment, but it stubbornly refuses to do so," Collins noted.

She said she was pleased to see that President Obama had addressed the FERS overpayment in his proposed budget, but she is disappointed that it did not direct OPM to update its methodology. Collins also expressed concern that the president's proposed 30-year repayment plan to refund FERS is too long given the immediate financial needs of the Postal Service.

In addition to resolving the overpayment to federal funds, Collins' legislation contains provisions that she says would help move the Postal Service toward more efficient and effective operations. "For example, it includes several provisions to address the stunning evidence of costly contract mismanagement, ethical lapses, and financial waste that the Postal Service Inspector General identified in a report that I requested," she said.

The senator spoke passionately about the provision in her legislation that would revise workers compensation law. The provision would reduce workforce-related costs government-wide by converting retirement eligible postal and federal employees on workers' compensation to retirement when they reach age 65, five years beyond the average retirement age for postal and federal employees.

"This is a common sense change that would significantly reduce expenses that both the Postal Service and the federal government cannot afford," she said, adding that the Postal Service stands out as an unfortunate example of how federal workers' comp is misused as a retirement system. From July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010, postal employees accounted for nearly half of all workers' comp benefit payments - about $1.1 billion for 15,470 recipients. Of that number, more than 2,000 were aged 70 or older; nearly 1,000 were 80 or older; and 132 were 90 or older.

"These people aren't going back to work," she said. "We need to fix this."

Collins closed her remarks by urging those in attendance to remain engaged in the legislative process and to lend their leadership and voices to the postal reform effort. Unlike past postal reform efforts, the current Congress appears interested in addressing some of the challenges facing the Postal Service, even if it has not yet reached a consensus on the precise fix. For the mailing industry, the hope is that it won't take another 30 years to sort out.