August 2, 2012
The Postal Service has assured the Postal Regulatory Commission on several occasions that it would not use lease problems or staffing issues to close POStPlan post offices by emergency suspension. Yet even before the implementation of POStPlan has officially begun, that seems to be exactly what’s happening.
In Helen, Maryland, the post office is set to be reduced to two hours a day under POStPlan. In June, the postmaster decided to take the retirement incentive, and her last day on the job was July 31. The next day an article appeared in the South Maryland News saying that the Postal Service is declaring an emergency suspension and closing the post office on August 17th. The Postal Service has also informed the landlord that it won’t be renewing the lease.
The Postal Service’s Discontinuance Handbook says the circumstances that may justify an emergency suspension include “lack of qualified personnel to operate the office” and “termination of a lease or rental agreement when suitable alternate quarters are not available in the community, especially when the termination is sudden or unexpected.”
There’s no indication that the Postal Service even tried to find someone to staff the Helen post office after it learned that the postmaster was retiring, and the position is not currently listed on the Postal Service’s Job Search website. As for the lease, it appears that the Postal Service simply decided not to renew the lease, so this is not a situation where the lease negotiations broke down and the Postal Service couldn’t find another location.
The Postal Service is simply using the postmaster vacancy to terminate the lease and declare an emergency suspension of the Helen post office. This, despite the fact that the Postal Service has explicitly reassured the PRC that it would not be doing anything such thing.
The Postal Service’s assurances
The lease issue and staffing problem have come up repeatedly in the POStPlan Advisory Opinion process.
When the Postal Service’s witness for POStPlan, Jeffrey Day, was cross-examined a few weeks ago, emergency suspensions over lease problems came up several times, and Mr. Day assured the Commission that POStPlan post offices were not heading toward a lot of suspensions.
In the Reply Brief filed just a few days ago with the PRC, the Postal Service addressed concerns about lease issues leading to emergency suspensions as follows: “While it is possible that a POStPlan Office may, at some point in the future, undergo a suspension because of lease negotiations, the Postal Service has no plan for using the lease negotiation process as a pretext to close Post Offices.”
The staffing issue is even more important because the Postal Service is looking at filling several thousand postmaster vacancies post offices over the coming months. A couple of thousand positions probably became vacant on July 31. Another two thousand will open up at the end of August and September.
Under questioning by PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway, Mr. Day testified that the Postal Service didn’t have a special plan for filling thousands of part-time positions because they have been “hiring this type of noncareer employee for years and years and years” (Transcript, p. 206).
Later in the hearing, Chairman Goldway was quite clear about what worried her: “I am still concerned about the ability to hire people who work just two hours a day and whether, as has happened with suspensions in the past, if you can’t find somebody we’ll wind up with a suspension” (Transcript, p. 299).
That concern was reiterated several times by the PRC’s Public Representative. In his Initial Brief, the PR argued that “there is no basis for witness Day’s assertions that the Postal Service will be able to staff virtually all RMPOs. And an unstaffable Post Office is destined for closure, just as in Kirksey, KY.”
That was a reference to the case of Kirksey, Kentucky, where the post office was suspended in April 2012 after the Postmaster Relief running the office was assigned to a different location and the Postal Service said it couldn't find anyone to fill the vacancy. After an appeal to the PRC and an order from the Commission reminding the Postal Service of its obligation to either restore services or conduct a formal discontinuance process, the Postal Service said last month it would discontinue Kirksey and open a Village Post Office instead.