Consternation and confusion: Putting POStPlan in place
September 18, 2012
The Postal Service began implementing POStPlan a couple of weeks ago, and in a post last week we reported on problems that had already begun to emerge: surveys sent only to box holders, meetings scheduled during the workday, using the post office lobby as the meeting place. A few more news reports have come out, and several people wrote in about problems they've observed. Here are more some stories about how POStPlan is being put into action.
Confusion over the options
When the Postal Regulatory Commission reviewed a draft of the survey the Postal Service planned to send out to customers asking about their preferences among the four options, the Commission observed that it was a bit confusing because customers might not understand that three of the four were about closing the post office. The Postal Service didn’t revise the survey, but it did try to explain in the accompanying letter that each of the options other than reducing the hours would lead to a discontinuance study.
As the PRC anticipated, people are not getting the fact that three of the options involve closing the post office. A news item last week about how POStPlan will affect the Isle of Wight and several other post offices in Tidewater, Virginia, illustrates the problem.
The article cites Michele Martel, district communication coordinator for the Postal Service in Richmond, explaining the four options as: (1) Reducing the hours at the post office; (2) Giving up post office boxes in exchange for rural delivery; (3) Having a local business offer minimal postal services; (4) Or closing the post office.
Obviously someone reading this article is likely to come away thinking that only one of the four options involves closing the post office. Many other news articles have been paraphrasing the survey without making it clear that three of the options are about closing the office. The Postal Service reps will need to do a lot of explaining at the community meetings, but by then, the surveys will have already been submitted and counted.
Increase the hours — or else
Last fall, before anyone knew anything about POStPlan, the Postal Service reduced the hours at the post office in Waters, Michigan, from eight a day to four. The USPS website currently lists the hours of operation as 10:30 to 2:30.
But when the Postal Service released the POStPlan list in May, it mistakenly showed that Waters was open eight hours a day rather than four, and that it would be changed under POStPlan to a Level 6.
The Postal Service has a lot of post offices to keep track of, so it’s not surprising that it would make a mistake this like. But now the Postal Service is proceeding to review Waters just like all the other offices on the POStPlan list.
So it will be sending out surveys and holding a community meeting to determine whether the folks in Waters would prefer to have the post office closed (under one of the three options) or to have the hours at the post office increased from four to six.
Waters was studied for closure back in July 2011, but after the community organized and protested, the Postal Service decided to keep the post office open. Now residents are worried that the Postal Service is again considering closing the office, even though POStPlan is really about reducing the hours. But when you’ve almost lost your post office and then you get a letter listing four options, and three of them are about discontinuance, you might get nervous.
“Of course, we would like to keep our local post office building open,” said Joe Ruby, a Waters post office patron. “The thought that 60 percent of us would vote to discontinue it is ridiculous. We all spoke out about how we feel about closing it before. They (Postal Service) don’t need to keep on hammering it and hammering it.”
Reduce the hours, then hold the meeting
As with the post office in Waters, there’s a post office in Eastern Kentucky that had its hours reduced before POStPlan implementation began last week. The hours were cut to four a day in early August, just a few days after the postmaster retired with the incentive buyout. There was no community meeting, no survey, just an announcement from the Postal Service that the hours were being cut in half.
At first, it looked as if the new hours would be in the morning, the busiest time at the office, but then the Postal Service decided that it would make more sense, in considering its operational needs, to open the office from 11:00 to 3:00. The Postal Service is doing the survey, and it has scheduled a community meeting for October, but one wonders why. The change in hours has already been implemented, and the community’s preferences have already been ignored.
Meetings in the lobby, box holders only
The post office in Malden, Washington (photo at the top), is set to be downgraded to Level 4, and we’re told that only box holders were sent a copy of the survey and notified about the meeting, which is scheduled for October 10 at 4:30. The Malden post office services the whole town, not just box holders, but rural delivery comes out of neighboring Rosalia, so apparently the Postal Service decided that customers who use the Malden post office but get rural delivery out of Rosalia aren’t part of the Malden community. The Malden meeting is scheduled for the lobby of the post office. The entire office is just 629 square feet, and the lobby can probably hold about twelve people standing up.
The meeting for the post office in Jonesville, Texas, is also scheduled for the lobby. It’s a bigger office than Malden, but the lobby is still a rather small space for a town meeting.
The Jonesville post office was all set to close last year. It received a final determination for discontinuance, then the community appealed to the PRC and actually won one of the few remand decisions issued by the Commission. The folks in Jonesville fought hard for their post office, and they thought they had won the battle. Now their post office is set to be downgraded to Level 4 under POStPlan.
Not only is the meeting about the Jonesville post office being squeezed into the lobby, it's being held on Tuesday, November 6, at noon. Yep, that’s the middle of the day on Election Day. Think people might have something else to do that day?
The meeting about the post office in Webster, North Carolina, was also scheduled for the lobby, but the Postal Service may be rethinking that decision. This is the post office, by the way, where Mark Jamison (who writes regularly for Save the Post Office) retired as postmaster at the end of July. Only box holders were sent surveys, and there are no extra surveys available at the window.
Speaking of lobbies, when the Postal Service's witness, Jeffrey Day, testified to the PRC, he said that the Postal Service would be spending $5 million to remodel over half the 13,000 post offices so that customers could get access to their boxes when the office was closed. Now we’re also hearing that this may not be happening at some post offices, at least not before the hours are cut.
Postmaster retires, hours cut
The Postal Service hasn’t said how many postmasters in POStPlan post offices took the retirement incentive offer, but based on a sampling of about fifty news articles we did a few weeks ago, it looks like as many as half of the 4,100 retiring postmasters worked at a POStPlan office. Now all of these post offices are being reviewed for downgrade, on top of the 3,000 that already had a postmaster vacancy.
The post office in Buckley, Michigan, is one of these post offices. The postmaster retired on July 31, and now the folks in Buckley are being told that they have a couple of weeks to return the survey and that there will be a meeting on October 1 at 5 p.m. at Buckley Village Hall. The news article states that the letter from the Postal Service says a final decision about the office won’t be made until after the meeting, but of course, the decision has already been made. There are 290 box holders at the Buckley post office, and the OIC says it’s a “pretty busy” place, but Buckley residents will have to get by with a post office open six hours a day.
Not POStPlan office, hours reduced hours anyway
We continue to hear reports that hours are being reduced at post offices that aren’t on the POStPlan list. In Pittston, Pennsylvania, for example, there are three branch offices in addition to the main office. At the beginning of August, the clerks in these offices were provided with notices to be posted on the door and to be distributed to box holders saying that the hours would be reduced on September 1.
These branches are not on the POStPlan list, and there were no surveys or meetings. Two of the branches were cut by an hour a day, and the third by just 45 minutes a day. It’s hard to understand why the Postal Service took this step. The clerks at these offices are all still working their regular full-time hours, and getting paid for it, even though the offices are open fewer hours.
How to tell a post office from a VPO
In Tippecanoe, Indiana, the Postal Service recently opened a new Village Post Office (VPO) at the Sunny Grocery Mart. The store opens at 6 a.m., and it’s open evenings and weekends, too. Tippecanoe’s real post office, on the other hand, is set to be downgraded from six hours a day to two.
This would appear to be a case where the VPO is an “enhancement” to the post office rather than a “replacement.” That’s how the Postal Service’s Mr. Day described the VPO to the PRC, and that’s how the Commission preferred to view the VPOs because their limited offerings hardly qualifies them as adequate substitutes for a post office..
The best part of the news article about Tippecanoe, though, is how the reporter — apparently taking his cue from what USPS spokesperson Judy Bays told him — describes a VPO: “A village post office acts similar to a branch office, except its hours are extended.” In other words, the difference between a VPO and a traditional post office is that a post office is open two hours a day and a VPO is open all day long.
Forget that about the fact that a VPO just sells Forever stamps and flat-rate boxes, forget that it’s operated by non-USPS personnel out of a grocery store, forget that it can be closed without going through any of the procedures guaranteed by Title 39. The main difference is that a VPO is actually open all day to serve customers, while the post office is open just two hours. Perhaps the Postal Service will revise the Postal Operations Manual to reflect these new definitions.
The Big 5-0
Speaking of VPOs, a couple of weeks ago the Postal Service proudly announced the opening of the fiftieth VPO in the country. “The big 5-0! Village Post Office openings reach a milestone,” reads the headline of the USPS press release. It’s located in Voss Acres Produce Market in Copalis Crossing, Washington, not too far from the site of the first VPO in Malone.
The regular post office in Copalis Crossings, which is located a tenth of mile from the Voss Acres market, is on the POStPlan list, set to be reduced to four hours a day. This news report says that the VPO will “bridge the gap” and make up for the reduced hours. It might seem, then, that this new VPO is intended to supplement rather than replace the post office, just as Mr. Day said they would.
On the other hand, the press release about this new VPO says, “USPS introduced the VPO as a replacement for communities lacking a postal retail facility or affected by postal consolidation efforts.” So which is it, enhancement or replacement. We’ll soon find out.
According to a second news report about the new VPO, “Voss Acres has agreed to open its doors for basic postal services in preparation for when the Copalis Crossing Post Office closes at an unannounced date.”
Suds 'N Stamps
While the VPO in Copalis Crossings may be getting all the attention for being 5-0, another contract postal outlet (this one a CPU not a VPO) opened last week, and for some reason, the opening was almost totally ignored by the Postal Service and the media. The story (reported by the Lehigh Valley Business news) doesn’t have anything to do with POStPlan, but it's worth noting.
This new contract postal unit is located in the Emmaus Avenue Laundromat in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Unlike the VPOs, it offers more than just Forever stamps and flat-rate boxes. It has a full line of postal products and services, including stamps, packaging, certified mail, and Priority Mail services (but not post office boxes, passports, or money orders).
From the business owner’s perspective, the CPU may not bring in a lot of money, but it could mean more laundry. “It's not so much for the monetary reasons – you couldn't earn a living just running a CPU,” said Steve Banko, owner of the laundromat. “It's bringing people that wouldn't normally come into our building. Hopefully they'll look around, and like what they see, and that will build our laundry business.”
Well, the Postal Service may be going down the drain, but at least it’s doing its part to help out small businesses. And it's a win-win for customers too — throw the clothes in the washer, mail a package at the postal window. It doesn't get more convenient than that.
There are 35,000 coin laundries in the U.S. — which is just about how many post offices we have. Putting post offices in laundromats could be the wave of the future.
(Photo credits: Mauldin WA post office; Isle of Wight, VA post office; Waters, MI post office; Jonesville, TX post office; Buckley post office; Sunny Grocery Mart VPO from Google Street View; Voss Acres VPO; Emmaus Ave. Laundromat CPU)