Reducing hours at post offices: A history of transparency problems

June 30, 2012

POStPlan, the Postal Service’s plan to reduce hours at 13,000 post offices, was not invented out of thin air.  The Postal Service has been reducing hours at post offices for many years.  But try getting any information from the Postal Service about the scope or effects of those reductions.

In 2004, the GAO issued a report about efforts to optimize the retail network, and it discusses reducing hours at post offices.  After noting that the Postal Service closed 440 post offices in 2003, the GAO says, “According to USPS, it has also adjusted hours at existing post offices from time to time to reflect customer demand.”

The GAO asked for details, but the Postal Service “could not provide information on the number of post offices where changes in hours occurred in fiscal year 2003.”


What we've got here is a failure to communicate

The GAO report goes on to explain how the Postal Service adjusts hours based on the number of transactions and customer visits.  The GAO then states, “USPS reported that its efforts to increase efficiencies in its retail area have resulted in a decrease of almost 5 million workhours from fiscal years 2002 to 2003.”

Given that this number appears at the end of a paragraph about reducing hours at post offices, one might get the impression that the 5 million workhours were eliminated thanks to these reductions.  But that’s probably not the case.  If the reduction in hours of operation averaged 4 hours a day per post office, 5 million hours would involve 4,800 post offices. 

It’s not likely that the Postal Service reduced hours at nearly five thousand post offices in one year.  The 5 million workhours must include many other ways to reduce retail hours, like opening fewer windows in post offices where there are several and eliminating window clerk jobs. 

The GAO report thus offers no relevant information about cutting hours of operation at post offices.  It contains no details about how many post offices had their hours reduced, how many hours the average reduction was, or how the reductions impacted revenues, customers, and communities.  The Postal Service “could not” provide this information — or it would not.

Given the Postal Service’s inability or unwillingness to share information about its practice of reducing hours, it should come as no surprise that the 2004 GAO report is entitled “USPS Needs to Clearly Communicate How Postal Services May Be Affected by Its Retail Optimization Plans.”   

The Hail Mary is an incomplete: The PRC denies the APWU motion to stop the change in service standards

June 29, 2012

The Postal Regulatory Commission has denied the APWU’s motion for an emergency order directing the Postal Service not to implement its proposed changes in service standards on July 2.  Next week, then, overnight delivery will end for Inter-SCF mail (that's mail that needs to travel from between processing facilities).  The PRC press release is here, and the order is here.

The decision does not come as a surprise.  As discussed in this blog post a few days ago, it was unlikely that the PRC would require the Postal Service to wait until the Advisory Opinion is completed, sometime around Labor Day.  Today’s order does, however, contain a clear statement that the Commission believes the public interest is not well served by the Postal Service’s decision to proceed with implementation while the Advisory Opinion process is still ongoing. 

Today’s order reviews the arguments made by the APWU and the Postal Service, and adds a few paragraphs of Commission Analysis.  There were several issues on the table.

1. Likelihood of Success on the Merits: The APWU needed to demonstrate that it would ultimately prevail in its original Complaint about premature implementation of the plan.  The Commission decided, however, that “APWU fails to provide any persuasive argument that 39 U.S.C. 3661 precludes the Postal Service from implementing any nationwide change in the nature of postal services until after the Commission issues its advisory opinion.” 

That’s a reference to section 3661 of Title 39, the passage in the Postal Reorganization Act that establishes the advisory opinion process.  The Act says, ‘When the Postal Service determines that there should be a change in the nature of postal services which will generally affect service on a nationwide or substantially nationwide basis, it shall submit a proposal, within a reasonable time prior to the effective date of such proposal, to the Postal Regulatory Commission requesting an advisory opinion on the change.”

The passage does not clearly state that the Postal Service must wait for the Opinion itself, and the PRC decided that the APWU had failed to demonstrate that its interpretation of the passage was conclusive.

Thousands of postmasters head for the exit, others play musical chairs

June 29, 2012

Some preliminary numbers are circulating on how the Special Incentive Offers are going.  About 45,000 mail handlers were offered $15,000 to retire, and as of June 22, the original deadline, 2,800 had decided to accept (2,500 optional and 260 VER).   The response is somewhat less than projections based on previous offers. 

It’s a different story for postmasters, however, and their response has apparently taken the Postal Service by surprise.  Based on past history, around 2,000 postmasters would have been expected to take the offer of $20,000.  But as of June 22, over 3,600 postmasters had decided to retire (2,500 optional and 1,100 VER).  With the deadline extended to July 2, the total may reach something like 4,500.

A few weeks ago, when the Postal Service saw these kinds of numbers coming in, it announced that due to the “overwhelming response” to the incentive offer, so it would be necessary to postpone the retirement date for some postmasters from July 31 to August 31 or September 30.  Staggering the retirement dates will give the Postal Service a little more time to adjust, but it’s not going to be easy staffing all these post offices. 

Most of the retiring postmasters run post offices that will have their hours cut under POStPlan.  Those offices will need temporary full-time replacements for a couple of months, and then they’ll need new part-time workers when the hours are cut, starting in the fall.  It’s not just these that will require new staffing, however.  Many postmasters who are retiring work at regular full-time offices not part of POStPlan.  When they leave and a position opens up, a POStPlan postmaster will want the job, so that postmaster’s post office will need new workers too.

The Postal Service is going to get a quick look at what it’s like to staff 13,000 post offices with part-time employees.  It’s possible that as many as 7,000 post offices will need to be staffed over the coming months.  Personnel at other offices will need to be shifted around, new workers will need to be hired and trained, and postmasters at Administrative Post Offices (APO) will need to learn how to manage part-time workers at a Remotely Managed Post Office (RMPO).  It could be a real headache.  One thing is for sure: the quality of service at thousands of post offices is going to decline very rapidly.


The union throws the Commission a Hail Mary on the change in service standards

June 25, 2012

Sometime this week, the Postal Regulatory Commission will issue a ruling on the APWU’s Motion for an Emergency Order, which seeks to prevent the Postal Service from implementing a change in service standards for First Class mail on July 1. 

If the PRC does not issue an order to stop the Postal Service, overnight delivery will come to an end for Inter-SCF First-Class Mail and periodicals.  That’s mail that originates or destinates outside of the geographic area served by a sectional center facility (SCF).  It’s basically regional mail, in between local and long distance, and it represents about 20 percent of First Class mail.  The other 80% of overnight delivery is Intra-SCF mail — the  “turnaround” mail that originates and destinates within the same geographic area served by an SCF — it's basically local mail that "stays in the building" — and it will be preserved until 2014, then that will be the end of overnight delivery for First Class mail.  

The APWU says the Postal Service should wait until the PRC issues its Advisory Opinion before implementing the changes, sometime around Labor Day.  The Postal Service says it won’t wait, and it’s filed an Opposition brief to the union’s request, arguing that the PRC doesn’t have the authority to issue an injunction, and even if it did, there’s no justification for it. 

The APWU argues that the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act (PRA) — the legislation that created the Postal Service, the PRC and Advisory Opinions — says the Postal Service must request an Advisory Opinion when it’s planning a change in service with nationwide impacts.  The Postal Service replies that the Act says only that it must request an Opinion; the Act doesn’t say that the Postal Service must wait until the Opinion is issued. 

The APWU says that if the Postal Service implements the changes before the Opinion is out, it would render the legal requirement for an Opinion “nugatory” (of no value).  The Postal Service responds that if it were expected to wait for an Opinion, the regulations would not specify that the request for an Advisory Opinion must be submitted “not less than 90 days in advance of the date on which the Postal Service proposes to make effective the change” (39 CFR § 3001.72). 

The APWU argues that if the service changes have already been implemented when the Opinion comes out and the Commission makes a recommendation against the changes, the Postal Service will say that it would impose too great a cost on itself and its customers to undo the changes.  The Postal Service replies that if it proves desirable to reverse the changes, mailers and the Postal Service can adjust.  In the meantime, says the Postal Service, a delay would lead to additional expenses and require it to revise its consolidation plans yet again.   (All the documents concerning the APWU Complaint and motion for an emergency order are in docket C2012-2.) 


No stopping summer consolidations

As good as the arguments may be for an emergency order, it’s not likely the Commission will rule in favor of the AWPU’s request.  Such an order would say, in effect, that the Postal Service must wait until the Opinion is issued.  As the Postal Service notes in its Opposition brief (p. 14), PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway has already expressed her view that the Postal Service needn’t wait for an Advisory Opinion to be issued before it implements the change in service standards.

The APWU knows this, and it has known for a long time that the change in service standards would most likely be implemented before the Opinion was issued.  In March, USPS VP David Williams told the Commission that the Final Rule on the changes would be published in the Federal Register in mid-April and the Postal Service would immediately begin the process of helping customers to adjust to the new system.  Everyone knew that the Opinion would not be out until months later.

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