POStPlan postponed: 3,200 postmasters get a reprieve

May 22, 2014

The Postal Service has announced that the timeline for implementing POStPlan is going to be extended.  Initially, all 13,000 post offices included in the plan were to have their hours reduced by the end of September 2014, and any full-time postmasters still working at those offices would have lost their full-time jobs on October 1 as part of a Reduction in Force (RIF).

According to a notice posted on the websites of NAPUS and the League of Postmasters, there are approximately 3,200 postmasters facing a RIF.  Now these postmasters are getting a reprieve — at least for a few months.  The new effective RIF date for impacted postmasters is now January 10, 2015.

It's not clear why the Postal Service is extending the RIF date.  Maybe headquarters wants to give postmasters more time to find new positions, maybe it has to do with the APWU's pending grievance regarding who should staff impacted offices (PRMs or PSEs), or maybe there are other obstacles to completing the implementation. 

The notice from NAPUS and the League does not state explicitly that these 3,200 post offices will remain at their full hours until January, but that’s certainly the implication.  It would make no sense to reduce the hours in October, but continue paying postmasters their full-time salaries until January.

No official list of these post offices has been released, but we’ve put together a list of 3,650 post offices where no public meeting has been held or scheduled as of June 12.  The list is here; a map is here.  (For more about POStPlan implementation, see this previous post.)

Presumably about 450 of these post offices currently have a postmaster vacancy, and they will see their hours reduced over the summer and early fall.  At the other 3,200, there’s still a full-time postmaster.

Our list includes the new POStPlan levels that were set back in 2012, but these may not turn out to be the new hours after all.  All of these post offices will be evaluated using data from Fiscal Year 2013 to determine the new level and hours.

At offices converting to six hours a day, postmasters still on the job in January 2015 will be demoted by RIF, but they can stay on, albeit at a significantly reduced salary ($12.30 to $18.18).  The offices going to two or four hours a day will be staffed by a postmaster relief, so those postmasters won’t be able to remain in their positions.  

By extending the implementation deadline by over three months, the Postal Service will be giving postmasters some extra time to look for a new full-time position, if that’s what they want.  Some may be ready to retire, and there have apparently been discussions about another Voluntary Early Retirement offer (VER), presumably something like the one postmasters were offered back in 2011.  The League and NAPUS notice simply says, “This is still on the table and an important part of future meetings.”

It’s unclear how many positions are available to provide a “soft landing” for these 3,200 postmasters, but it’s apparently the hope of the Postal Service and postmaster organizations that anyone who wants a new position will be able to find one.  Of course, that may require a willingness to commute or relocate or take an undesirable position.  As the notice says, “Postmasters need to help themselves to become good candidates for available positions and be flexible about new opportunities.”

(Photo credit: Post office in Bangall, NY by J. Gallagher of the PMCC.  The Bengall Post Office is one of those on the list of 3,200.  In March 2014, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that it was being nominated to the State and National Registers of Historic Places.)

We don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the Postal Service

May 8, 2014

MARK JAMISON

It looks like the folks in L’Enfant Plaza will be the last to acknowledge what everyone else in the country already knows — customer service at the Postal Service is going way down hill, and fast. 

The plant consolidations have resulted in delayed mail, late delivery, and countless other service problems.  Under POStPlan, service has declined due to reducing hours at post offices and replacing experienced postmasters with poorly trained and underpaid personnel.  The shift from door and curb delivery to cluster boxes has confused and angered thousands of customers.  When customers try calling to complain, they can’t even get hold of their local post office.

Everyday there are news reports about such problems.  Postal officials say they’re just trying to make the system more “efficient” and to act “like a business,” but what they’re doing is taking the “service” out of Postal Service.  When they’re done, we’re going to end up with a United State Postal Corporation, and customer service is not going to be high on the agenda. 

 

Inventive interpretations

Much of the problem has to do with the way policies and initiatives that come out of postal headquarters get interpreted in the field.  As much as the Postal Service is a top-down autocracy that tries to micromanage everything, many senior and mid-level managers at the district and local level can get quite creative about how they understand directives from above.  In their zeal to please their superiors, employees can end up interpreting policies and regulations in ways that make very little sense. 

For example, it’s well known that the folks at headquarters would like to see a shift from door delivery to cluster boxes, but it’s postal policy not to change a customer’s mode of delivery without permission.  Nonetheless, last year the managers in the North Florida District decided to negotiate with the government agency that oversees Jekyll Island, Georgia, and together they decided that the island could keep its post office only if residents gave up door delivery — without getting the residents’ approval for the change.

In Freistatt, Missouri, Rick Belcher, the POOM representing the Mid-Americas District, decided that cluster boxes were the only alternative form of delivery that would be made available to residents after their local post office was closed because of a lease issue. This was in spite of the fact that rural curb delivery was already available throughout the area.

Then there was the story about the book publisher in Virginia who was told by a local manager that he could no longer use Media Mail to send his books — even though he’d been mailing that way for 22 years.  His customers, by the way, are members of the military.

Postal watchdog files complaint against USPS for reducing hours at post offices

April 30, 2014

Postal watchdog Douglas Carlson has filed a formal complaint with the Postal Regulatory Commission concerning the Postal Service’s decision to reduce window hours at post offices.  According to the complaint, the Postal Service has changed its policies without seeking an advisory opinion, and now it will be reducing hours without seeking customer input.

In 2010, the Postal Operations Manual was revised to say that before changing retail hours, the postmaster was required to solicit customer feedback (Postal Bulletin 22289).  In 2012, this passage was removed from the POM, thus giving postmasters authority to change window hours at their discretion, regardless of customer needs (Postal Bulletin 22344).

Mr. Carlson’s complaint argues that this change in the POM represented a change in the nature of postal services on a nationwide basis within the meaning of 39 U.S.C. § 3661(b), which requires the Postal Service to seek an advisory opinion from the PRC in such cases. The Postal Service did not request an advisory opinion before changing the POM, and according to the complaint, “the Postal Service no longer has a policy or practice to ensure that retail hours provide adequate and efficient postal services.”

While the POM was changed almost two years ago, the issue has become significant at this moment because the Postal Service is now reducing window hours at numerous post offices in California, where Mr. Carlson resides.  On May 4, closing time for the retail windows at in over two dozen post offices in San Francisco will change from 6 p.m. to 5 p.m. In many if not most of these cases, the Postal Service didn’t even post signs notifying customers of the impending change, which is required by the POM.

Mr. Carlson’s complaint argues that the Postal Service has failed to “adequately and sufficiently consider the needs of customers” before making these changes to the hours.  He suggests as remedies that the Postal Service suspend its plan to change the window hours at these post offices and amend the POM so that customers must be consulted before making such changes.  In the meantime, Mr. Carlson asks the PRC to grant emergency injunctive relief to prevent the change of hours on May 4.

It should be noted that these changes are occurring at relatively large urban post offices.  They are not part of the reduction in hours now taking place at 13,000 small rural post offices under POStPlan.  The changes Mr. Carlson is contesting do not involve matching operating hours to work hours, which is the basis for POStPlan, and they were not encompassed by the PRC’s advisory opinion on POStPlan.

Mr. Carlson's complaint also notes several unsuccessful attempts to obtain information from the Postal Service under the Freedom of Information Act, a matter that is currently the subject of a pending complaint in U.S. District Court.

Mr. Carlson is an attorney who’s been watching out for consumer interests in postal operations for many years.  He’s filed numerous requests for documents under the FOIA, he won a lawsuit against the USPS over a FOIA request in 2007, and he comments regularly for PRC advisory opinions. There’s a good profile of Mr. Carlson here.

(Photo credits: Sign and counter in Rincon Finance Station post office.)

 

Giving away the store: The Postal Service discounts the mail

April 20, 2014

MARK JAMISON

In her book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, Susan Crawford describes how the American public has been imprisoned by monopoly arrangements in the delivery of broadband and wireless Internet services. Using pricing and discount strategies, communications corporations have colluded to circumvent competition and make private fiefdoms out of what should have been public infrastructure.  

It’s not a new strategy.  Back in the 1870’s, J.P. Morgan and the railroad barons worked with John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil to use preferential pricing schemes and discounts to corner markets and consolidate their monopoly powers.

In its quest to act more like one of these giant corporations, the Postal Service has been using similar strategies, like fighting off regulation, making secret deals, manipulating prices, and offering discounts to become more competitive. 

Worksharing is probably the most notorious example of a discount of dubious merit.  Since the practice began in 1976, worksharing has grown dramatically.  Now about 80 percent of the mail arrives at the Postal Service pre-sorted to qualify for discount rates (as discussed in this OIG report).  Worksharing has spawned a huge private-sector consolidation industry that profits off the $15 billion (or more) in discounts that the Postal Service gives out each year.  As repeatedly documented in compliance determination reports by the Postal Regulatory Commission, many of the discounts are so large that they don't even cover their avoided costs.  Worksharing has led to the loss of tens of thousands of postal jobs.

Worksharing is not the only type of discount to be concerned about, however.  For large mailers, there are discounts for bar coding and an ever-increasing number of Negotiated Service Agreements.  For average customers, discounts are available for going online instead of going to the post office.  Now we’ve learned that the Postal Service is apparently giving discounts to Staples as part of the plan to put postal counters in big box stores.

Through the use of such discounts, the Postal Service has transferred large parts of its operations to the private sector.  Besides undermining postal jobs and the postal network, these discounts also threaten to create significant unregulated monopoly power in the communication, mail, and package delivery sector.

The Postal Service may say that the discounts are just good for business and that going online or using a postal counter in Staples is just more convenient for customers, but the real goal is to get rid of post offices, postal workers, and postal infrastructure.  From worksharing to Staples, the discounts mean one thing: The Postal Service is giving away the store. 

 

Discounts to Staples

Putting postal counters in Staples stores is clearly intended to replace postal workers in brick-and-mortar post offices.  The only way the deal can save the Postal Service any money is by reducing the number of clerks at nearby post offices and then closing post offices completely.  Maybe that’s why one of the provisions in Darrell Issa’s postal reform legislation removes the right to appeal a post office closure to the PRC if there’s a Contract Postal Unit within two miles of the post office.  There are over 1,200 post offices within a couple of miles of a Staples store. 

But there’s another aspect to the Staples deal that hasn’t got much attention.  The Postal Service is apparently giving Staples discounts on Priority and Express mail, domestic and global. 

These discounts have not been discussed publicly by the Postal Service, and the details are a closely guarded secret.  The APWU filed a complaint against the Postal Service and requested more information about the deal, including a copy of the Staples contract.  It received a long document of 58 pages, almost all of it blacked out.  (The APWU posted it here.)

Not everything in the document was redacted, however, and there was enough left to allow us to do a little detective work, which led to two PRC dockets covering Negotiated Service Agreements.  In comparing the APWU version and the PRC version of the documents, it seems almost certain that these NSAs involve the Staples counters.  (You can see some of the points of comparison here.)

Docket CP2013-84 covers an NSA for reselling Global Priority and Express mail, and CP2014-3 deals with an NSA for reselling domestic Priority and Priority Express.  If these indeed are the NSAs for the Staples deal, they tell us that one of the ways Staples is making money on its postal counters is by receiving commercial-based discounts on Priority and Express items.  We don’t know how much those discounts are, but one might reasonably conclude they are even more generous than those offered Click-N-Ship customers on the Postal Service website, which can be as much as 16 percent off retail. 

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