Postal Service changes, proposals concern local workers

Posted: Dec. 1, 2012 9:55 pm Updated: Dec. 23, 2012 2:15 am

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has been making the circuit in Washington, promoting changes -- such as an end of Saturday mail delivery -- aimed at making the Postal Service more profitable.

"What we're facing now is our own fiscal cliff," Donahoe said.

Donahoe told "CBS This Morning" last week the Postal Service faces a record $16 billion loss for the year. The cure laid out by Donahoe involves stopping Saturday letter delivery, although packages would still be delivered. He also wants to see Congress stop requiring the Postal Service to pay $5.5 billion a year for retiree pensions and health coverage, when all other federal agencies of similar size are paying about $1 billion.

"What that does is change our profit and loss by $8 billion," Donahoe said.

He said that the Postal Service, which does not receive tax dollars, would remain profitable for years to come if those adjustments are allowed by Congress.

But local Postal Service employees are less sure of that.

Alan Harvey, president of local 216 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, does not think the elimination of Saturday deliver will solve the problem, but he agrees that delivering packages, priority mail and having some window hours at post offices would help "maintain the monopoly of the mailbox" and keep competing services from springing up.

Vaughn Harshman, president of the American Postal Workers Local 77, said there's still a sense of disbelief among the clerks working at the Quincy Mail Processing and Distribution Center. Although the Postal Service rated it very high for efficiency only a few years ago, it is being phased out of service and operations moved elsewhere.

"Last year we had 60 clerks, now its 48 or 49," Harshman said.

That workforce reduction began in August when mail originating in the 623 ZIP code area started being shipped to Springfield, Ill., for processing. The sorting center is operating on a reduced level, sorting mail for the 634 and 635 ZIP code areas of Northeast Missouri. That work will end in February when sorting duties are transferred to a processing center in Columbia, Mo.

"That will be the final nail" for the Quincy processing center, Harshman said.

He's concerned about what will happen with the clerks still at the processing center. Seven clerks were transferred to jobs as letter carriers in August. Those making that initial switch were the younger workers with less seniority.

"With this next change we're going to have people with 15 and 20 years at the post office. And they're going to go where? We don't know," Harshman said.

Contracts with the American Postal Workers Union have a guarantee that job transfers must be within 50 miles. Harshman does not believe there are that many jobs within the promised distance.

Valerie Welsch, a Postal Service regional spokeswoman based in St. Louis, did not have all the details on where jobs are available, but said the Postal Service has been doing its best to prepare those who will be affected by workforce reductions.

"The Postal Service has been holding job fairs around for employees. We have been letting employees know for quite a while now where positions have been held open. We've encouraged employees to apply for those jobs," Welsch said.

Harvey said the letter carrier force in this area has been shorthanded, but there are not enough positions to handle the workers who will be displaced early next year.

"They haven't really come out with anything stating what they're going to do with these people. A lot of them have gotten letters saying they have 60 or 90 days to find other employment within the Postal Service," Harvey said.

Mail delivery in Quincy has changed somewhat since sorting moved to Springfield. Much of the mail still has next-day delivery, but Harshman said it requires greater handling by clerks.

"They're putting it on the trucks to get it here, but we're having to handle more of it manually," Harshman said.

Harvey said trucks from Springfield also arrive later, requiring a later start for letter carriers.

"We used to start at 7 a.m. Now it's 7:30 and they want to push it back to 8 a.m. My problem with that is that we have carriers out on the street past dark. That's going to lead to injures and accidents," Harvey said.

Harshman said the elimination of Quincy as a distribution hub also has caused big changes. Mail that used to be sorted in Quincy allowed truck routes that totaled up to 200 miles. Now that sorting is done in Springfield, the Postal Service has ended the transfer of incoming and outgoing mail at Quincy.

"Now they've got trucks that have 400-mile routes. They're so intent on gutting Quincy that they want to spend their money on gas on these truck routes," Harshman said.

Legislation in the House and Senate has been awaiting action, but it is not clear whether Congress will take up a version that allows the elimination of most mail on Saturdays.

Donahoe said the decision needs to be made quickly. The Postal Service is operating on about a week of cash flow, the agency's officials say.