By Eric Francis
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Although a formal decision has been pushed back until May, it is clear that the Postal Service would like to close Vermont’s largest mail processing facility, which is out behind the White River Junction post office on Sykes Avenue, as part of a “radical network realignment” plan designed to eliminate 252 such centers nationwide.
What truly makes the plan radical is that, for the first time in its 236-year-long history, the United States Postal Service would be deliberately slowing down, rather than speeding up, the delivery of the mail.
In a meeting last Wednesday in downtown White River Junction, nearly 500 postal workers and community members packed in to hear USPS Northern New England District Manager Deborah Essler explain the reasoning behind the latest push to consolidate postal operations with the ultimate goal of cutting costs.
Essler said that the post office was up against “enormous challenges as an organization” due to a large decline in business brought about because of email, electronic bill paying, and the grinding recession.
The “high water mark” of mail volume in this country occurred in 2006 and since then, Essler, said, first class mail volume has dropped by 20 percent – over 43 billion pieces of mail annually – which adds up to a loss in revenue that even recent gains in package shipping and advertising mail volume will never be able to make back up.
“Simply put – to process less mail we need less facilities,” Essler told the crowd that included Vermont’s entire Congressional delegation and Governor Shumlin in the front row.
The current proposal is to close the White River facility and reassign 175 unionized postal employees to other posts (although local postal worker’s unions insist the actual number of “middle class jobs” and residents that would move from Hartford and surrounding towns would amount to 250 people) primarily in Burlington and Manchester, New Hampshire where facilities would take over the workload currently done by the White River plant.
In order to make the plan work, the postal service would have no choice but to drop its long cherished nationwide “service standard” which provides for next day delivery of first class mail to local addresses down to a “two-to-three day standard,” Essler explained.
Postal workers expressed disbelief at the notion and hissed loudly every time Essler mentioned the proposed standard reduction during Wednesday evening’s meeting.
When it came to his turn at the podium Gov. Shumlin got a standing ovation after he called the proposed changes, and especially the closure of the White River Junction facility, “sheer idiocy” and vowed to do everything he could to fight it.
“We’re a rural state,” Shumlin noted, “It’s critical, as we slowly crawl out of the worst recession in our history, that we have a postal service that delivers mail when we send it, not three or four days after we send it.”
“Go somewhere else to find pretend savings,” Shumlin said to whoops of support from the crowd.
Speaking before his own turn at the microphone, Senator Bernie Sanders said he objected to the entire national plan being put forward, at one point calling it “patently insane” to consider laying off 100,000 postal workers in the midst of a recession where unemployment is already at crisis levels.
Sanders also said he felt that the postal service is chasing the wrong end of the financial problems that it is facing.
“The immediate crisis has to do with the decline in first class mail and the recession but very importantly there have been onerous pressures placed on the post office by Congress to come up with 75-year’s-worth of future retiree health care benefits in a ten year period. That’s $5.5 billion dollars a year,” Sanders explained. “There is no other agency of government which is required to do that. In addition to that, the post office has overpaid into the federal retirement system so there are some very important accounting issues that, if they are dealt with, can solve the immediate financial crisis.”
Sanders said that legislation he has introduced which will be considered when Congress gets back into session addresses those short-term concerns and could buy the postal service a few more years of breathing room without having to make major cuts in jobs and facilities.
“On top of that you obviously need to put a new business model,” Sanders continued. “We have to understand that we are in the 21st century and we have to create more entrepreneurship within the postal service to bring it more revenue.”
“If you eliminate White River and 251 other plants what you essentially do is slow down the delivery of mail in this country, you begin a death spiral, because if you put a letter in the box and it takes three, four, or five days to get to its destination you are not going to use the postal service anymore. It’s the beginning of the end,” Sander said. “So the goal here is not just saving jobs in the midst of a recession – many of them belonging to veterans by the way – but it is also maintaining the integrity of the delivery system and not slowing down mail delivery so that people don’t say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to use the postal service anymore. I’m going somewhere else.’” That’s what this is about. And if we can make the case here, and other groups around the country stand up and fight for their post offices, I think we can create a different business model than we currently have.”
With 32,000 post office buildings already bought and paid for in even the smallest and remotest areas of the country, Sanders said it was time to think of more creative ways of making them useful to the communities they serve, suggesting things that post offices are currently prevented from doing, like notarizing documents, making copies, and even selling state hunting and fishing licenses, are the kinds of services that might once again make the postal service a profitable enterprise.
It’s hard to gauge the impact of how the proposed slowdown in first class and periodical mail delivery would affect communities like those around Woodstock, in part because local postmasters have been told not to speak to reporters about the proposed changes.
Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the postal service’s Northern New England region said there was nothing sinister about the emails that went out to post offices directing all call to him. “It’s not a gag order. It’s just a policy that all media inquiries come through the Corporate Communications Office,” Rizzo said this week, noting, “We have 950 post offices in our district and frankly not all the postmasters and officers-in-charge are fully apprised of what some of these changes are or what current policies are…when those legislative or regulatory changes are made we want to speak with one voice on it.”
One confusing aspect of the proposed changes is that these days there is more than one basic kind of mail and anything that is paid for as “priority mail” essentially moves in a parallel stream of packages even though it is moving through many of the same facilities as first class mail.
Rizzo said that priority and international mail will not be affected by the current plans, which comes as a relief to local businesses like Trafalgar Square Books, which employs around a dozen people selling mainly craft and horse-related books, and which for over 30 years has been running an international shipping and receiving operation out of the tiny North Pomfret Post Office.
“We probably keep the North Pomfret Post Office in business,” Trafalgar Square’s Warehouse Manager Marilyn Tobin noted. “Years ago they actually put in the outside entrance on one side of the building so we could take our packages in to make it more convenient for us. We ship many packages a day and over the holidays it’s astronomical but the bulk of what we do is priority and so I really don’t feel (closing White River) is going to affect us terribly.”
“We’re a distribution center,” Tobin explained. “We have a lot of incoming books from England and our printer is in Hong Kong. We’ve gone to the postal service because for a lot of the things we do in our business it’s more economical but as far as the first class mail we don’t do a lot of it. I think it is too bad that they are thinking of closing the White River Junction facility because obviously there is the issue of employment…but I don’t really see it affecting the speed of what we do very much.”
This article first appeared in the January 12th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.