Postal Service Launches Banking Pilot With Hopes to Expand in Early 2022
USPS is taking a limited approach in just four cities to start but is already engaged in expansion plans.
The U.S. Postal Service has launched a pilot program to offer customers financial services, an unexpected first step toward realizing a longstanding progressive goal of postal banking.
USPS is testing the program at just four post offices on the East Coast. It will enable individuals to deposit payroll or business checks of up to $500 onto a single-use debit card for a flat fee of $5.95. The offering is far short of the much more comprehensive suite of financial services many advocates and left-leaning lawmakers have sought for years, but still takes USPS in a surprising direction under the leadership of embattled Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
Postal management worked with the American Postal Workers Union to set up the pilot. APWU has also long advocated for postal banking, including by negotiating it into a previous collective bargaining agreement.
The four sites, located in Washington, D.C.; Falls Church, Virginia; Baltimore; and the Bronx, New York, will not accept any checks larger than $500. The debit cards, to which USPS is referring as “gift cards,” will allow users to withdraw cash from an ATM for a fee or purchase goods online or at retail stores. The American Prospect first reported the pilot.
The initial sites and services are meant to be a “proof-of-concept” test for the Postal Service, APWU officials said. The union is hopeful that USPS will expand the pilot in early 2022, both in terms of services offered and locations where they are available. The easiest areas for expansion would be to allow for gift cards for checks of more than $500. Thousands of post offices already offer Visa gift cards, and management concluded there would be few legal hurdles to simply accepting another form of payment for them. The cards USPS currently has in stock are capped at $500, hence the current maximum. Management is looking to both raise the cap on those and allow for the bundling of multiple cards.
Other services in discussion are a bill pay product, making the cards branded to the Postal Service and reloadable, and wire transfers from one post office to another. USPS has expressed an openness to setting up its own ATMs, though that may require additional statutory authority and is therefore only expected much further down the road. USPS offered banking services for more than 50 years, but stopped in 1967.
Tatiana Roy, a USPS spokeswoman, said that offering “affordable, convenient and secure” services was aligned with DeJoy’s 10-year plan to fix the mailing agency’s finances. The Postal Service this month implemented another key element of DeJoy’s plan, slowing down delivery times for about 40% of First-Class mail while also raising prices above the normal inflation-based rate.
The banking pilot “is an example of how the Postal Service is leveraging its vast retail footprint and resources to innovate,” Roy said.
APWU renewed its push for banking services earlier this year and management took a serious interest. While the union sought a wider array of services in more locations, management told the labor group that “the best way to get started was to get started.”
“It’s a baby step but we’re thrilled to be moving in the right direction,” one union official said.
USPS and APWU have not set specific figures for the number of sites to which the pilot could expand, but those discussions are ongoing. Before Monday when the program gained attention in national media outlets, USPS only announced the availability of the check cashing service through signs in the four affected post offices. The Postal Service is in the midst of soliciting proposals from the private sector for check verification services.
Research from the University of Michigan has found that one-in-four U.S. Census tracts, which are home to 21 million people, do not have any banks within their borders. Advocates for postal banking have highlighted that the private sector often charges high fees for check cashing services and that historically disadvantaged communities are disproportionately impacted by them. APWU has suggested expanding the pilot to all of the Bronx, all of Puerto Rico or to an entire rural county.
Postal management has put together a training session for impacted employees to get them up to speed on the pilot. An APWU official said its members were excited by the new task and recognized it could play a vital role in the future of the Postal Service.
The push for postal banking has gained steam in recent years, even becoming a part of the official platform of the Democratic Party. A House-backed funding bill for fiscal 2022 would require USPS to implement a banking pilot in five rural and five urban ZIP codes. Democratic lawmakers have also put forward legislation to create a public banking system backed by the Federal Reserve, which users would access at post offices. Porter McConnell, co-founder of the Save the Post Office Coalition, praised USPS for launching the pilot but said it was “not enough.”
“Given that experts and elected officials have been calling on the USPS to pilot postal banking for years, these pilots are long overdue,” said McConnell, the daughter of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “They are late to this party, but they have at least rung the doorbell.”