October 24, 2013
Yesterday the Postal Service gave the Postal Regulatory Commission a copy of the Household Diary Study, the annual report on mail use and attitudes. The study says this about how people are using their post office:
"In spite of a declining frequency of visits over the past five years, the use of post offices for mailing services continues to dominate the mail service industry. Sixty percent of all U.S. households patronize a post office at least once a month, while just 11 percent visit a private mailing company. Over 28 percent of all households in the U.S. visit the post office three or more times a month. Even with the continued availability of mailrelated products and services through alternative modes (such as Internet orders), in-person visits to postal facilities remain strong."
One might think that with so many people patronizing their post office, the Postal Service would be more interested in preserving its legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices. Instead, we have POStPlan, the initiative to eliminate postmasters and reduce hours at 13,000 small post offices.
The implementation of POStPlan is past halfway. The Postal Service provides bi-monthly lists of where POStPlan has been implemented; the source page is here, the merged list is here, and an article about the implementation, here. The Postal Service website also has a page where all the POStPlan meetings are listed on a week-by-week basis, which you can find here. We’ve merged all the lists into one big list on Google docs, here, along with a map.
The list of meetings indicates that as of today, the Postal Service has held over 8,400 meetings to talk over POStPlan options with each community; another hundred or so are scheduled for the coming weeks.
Of the total of around 8500 meetings, about 4,500 took place in a town hall, church, or similar location; the other 4,000 took place in the post office itself. Most of the POStPlan offices are small, so in many cases the folks at the meeting had to stand in a crowded little lobby area.
The meetings have been scheduled in the afternoon and evening; very few were in the morning. About 3,400 began sometime between noon and 4 p.m.; 3,000, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.; and 2,000, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. That means that in three out of four towns, people who work during the day were unable to attend.
There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of news reports about these meetings. They tell the same story. The Postal Service representative, usually the postmaster in the APO (administrative post office) or someone from the district headquarters, explains how falling mail volumes and revenues have made it necessary to look for cost-cutting moves.
The small group gathered in the post office lobby or a town hall is told that they have four options. Three involve closing the post office — have the mail delivered to your house, use another post office, or find a local business that wants to sell stamps and perhaps other postal products. The fourth is to keep the post office open at reduced hours. Naturally, in virtually every case, the community has chosen reduced hours. The news reports often cheer this result, with headlines like “post office saved” and “post office not closing.”
That outcome was easy to predict, but the Postal Service nonetheless went through the process of sending out questionnaires and holding meetings in thousands and thousands of small towns across the country. The goal was obviously not to give people an opportunity to decide something. Reducing the hours was the only viable alternative.
One has to wonder, then, why the Postal Service has invested so much time and expense in holding all these meetings. They weren't required by any laws or regulations. Why bother when the outcome was a foregone conclusion?
October 2, 2013
The Postal Service is well along in its implementation of POStPlan, the initiative to cut hours at 13,000 post offices and replace their postmasters with part-time workers. Since beginning the process a year ago, the Postal Service has reduced hours at about 8,300 post offices. Another couple of hundred will be reduced over the coming weeks.
In the request for an exigent rate increase submitted to the Postal Regulatory Commission last week, the Postal Service reviewed some of the steps it has taken to cut costs over the past few years, including POStPlan. The request indicates that in the first nine months of 2013, the Postal Service had implemented POStPlan at 7,397 post offices.
There were about 600 or 700 post offices where implementation took place in the fall of 2012. Another 166 implementations are scheduled for this month. In addition, 193 post offices had meetings scheduled for September and October, and they will have their hours reduced later this year. That adds up to about 8,400 post offices.
Since the beginning of 2013, the Postal Service has published bimonthly lists of of the post offices where POStPlan has been implemented. A list merging all those lists is here, and a map is here. The list includes the implementations from 2012 as well. A separate list of the meetings scheduled for September and October is here (lists of all the meetings are here).
The Postal Service has implemented POStPlan only at offices where there was a postmaster vacancy. At offices where the postmaster has chosen to stay on, POStPlan will not be implemented until September 30, 2014.
The 8,400 postmaster vacancies where POStPlan has been implemented breaks down to something like this: About 2,200 offices had a postmaster vacancy when POStPlan was announced in May 2012. About 4,000 postmasters took the retirement incentive last summer, of which maybe 2,200 were at POStPlan offices (a rough guess). Something like 1,600 POStPlan postmasters transferred to a new position in early fall 2012, another couple of thousand transferred to a position that opened up thanks to the retirements, and a few hundred more have found new positions in recent months.
At this point, POStPlan implementation is over 60 percent complete. This state-by-state breakdown shows that implementation has been fairly uniform across the country. In a few states (Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire), the implementation rate is a bit higher, but this is probably just a function of where the postmaster vacancies are occurring.
The rate of implementation has slowed down over the course of the year. As this table shows, during the first quarter of 2013, some 4,600 offices had their hours reduced; during the second quarter, 2,200; and during the third, about 600. The decreasing rate of implementation reflects the fact that there aren’t many offices developing new postmaster vacancies.
Implementation will probably proceed at a pace of about a hundred a month or less for much of 2014. By September 2014, when all of the remaining POStPlan offices will have their hours reduced and all remaining postmasters will be removed from their positions by RIF (Reduction in Force), there will probably be about 4,000 postmasters still in their jobs.
A few of them may be ready to retire anyway — they just passed up the 2012 incentive offer because they wanted to work another two years. But for most of them, September 30, 2014, will be a very unhappy day.
At least in the other POStPlan post offices, the postmaster retired voluntarily or transferred to another post office. For the last 4,000 POStPlan postmasters, there will be nothing very voluntary about how they depart from the Postal Service.
(Photo credit: Post office in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, which is having its POStPlan meeting today.)
February 24, 2013
The Postal Service is plowing ahead with its community meetings on POStPlan. As of Friday, it had held 6,741 meetings, and it has scheduled an additional 474 through March 15.
That’s a total of 7,215 meetings — well more than half the list of 13,000 post offices that are seeing their hours reduced. Before last week, implementation was complete at about 2,800 post offices. On Saturday, another 737 joined the list, bringing the total number of post offices that have seen their hours reduced to over 3,500. (The weekly meeting lists are posted on the USPS website here; you can see the entire list as a table here and spreadsheet here. The implementation dates can be found here and here.)
About 3,500 of the meetings were held at the local post office. These are usually rural post offices with small lobbies, so many of the meetings have been held with patrons crowded together and standing up.
Not that the meetings have lasted very long. There's not much to talk about. The decision to reduce the hours was made almost a year ago, and what the new hours will be comes as an announcement, not a matter for discussion. There’s no need for a lot of talk about the options because there aren’t any. It’s either reduce the hours or close the post office.
The meetings are really just an opportunity for the Postal Service spokesperson to drive home the point that the agency is losing $25 million a day and billions every year so it must make cuts in service like reducing the hours.
The local newspaper dutifully repeats what the Postal Service has said. In most articles, there’s also a quote or two from citizens saying they're concerned about how reducing the hours will hurt some members of the community but it's better than losing the post office altogether. The headlines say that the post office has been “spared” or “saved" or "will stay open" — as if closing it were really a possibility, even though virtually none of the 13,000 POStPlan post offices will close.
When the Postal Service witness for POStPlan, Jeffrey Day, was questioned by the Postal Regulatory Commission for its advisory opinion on POStPlan, he testified that while post offices would be reviewed annually to see if they needed to be upgraded or downgraded based on their revenues and workload, the meetings would not be repeated because "community meetings are very expensive." When asked how much the Postal Service had budgeted for the surveys and meetings, he said he "didn't have that number offhand," and he couldn't even say if it was in the millions of dollars.
One wonders how much money the Postal Service has spent on these seven thousand meetings (with another six thousand to go). Whatever they cost, it was a waste of money, at least in terms of getting feedback from citizens. The outcome never depended on surveys and meetings. The decisions were made in postal headquarters long before an average American weighed in.
But that's not what the meetings are about. They are a publicity strategy to make it seem that the Postal Service is “listening” to its customers. (The page on the USPS website about the POStPlan meetings is titled "We're listening.")
Even more, the meetings serve as a staged public relations event designed to get a message out: The Postal Service is hemorrhaging billions, and the public must endure cuts in service if the agency is to survive.
The meetings go hand in hand with the Postmaster General's trip to Montana last May — a publicity tour to show he was "listening" to people in small towns who were concerned about their post office closing. (At the time, the PMG had already decided not to close post offices and to do POStPlan instead.)
The Postal Service has been doing a great job controlling the message. We hear constantly about how everyone is using the the Internet and email, how declining mail volumes are pushing the agency deeper and deeper in debt, and how management has no choice but to reduce costs by whatever means necessary — closing plants and slowing down the mail, ending Saturday delivery, shifting over to cluster boxes, cutting hours at the post office.
We don't hear anything about the possibility that these service cutbacks are actually about keeping postal rates down for large business mailers and dismantling the country's postal system so that corporate interests can grab a bigger piece of the pie.
When you consider how much it would have cost to place ads in thousands of community newspapers and on hundreds of local TV channels, the Postal Service has probably found a bargain. Whatever they cost to hold, the POStPlan meetings have provided great free publicity. They were a perfect way to control the message. And that’s probably what postal management was thinking when it decided to hold them.
January 15, 2013
The Postal Service has already held over 5,400 community meetings for POStPlan, and it has scheduled another 860 for the rest of January and the first week of February. Within a few weeks, some 6,340 post offices will see their hours reduced to six, four, even two hours a day. That’s nearly half of the 13,000 post offices on the list.
The Postal Service began actual implementation of the reduced hours at over one thousand post offices on January 12. It has scheduled implementation at another 2,250 offices during the rest of January and February: January 26 (944), February 9 (833), and February 23 (475).
The Postal Service has said on numerous occasions that it would implement POStPlan “gradually,” over a two-year period, and it will probably take that long to reduce hours at all 13,000 offices. But the Postal Service is wasting no time on cutting the hours at the first half of the list.
A spreadsheet with all the meetings held or scheduled so far is here, a table here, and a map here; the lists come from the USPS website, here. The implementation list is on the USPS website here; a spreadsheet is here; a table, here; and map, here.
Some 3,100 of the meetings have been held (or will be) at the local post office itself, typically in the lobby. Since almost all POStPlan offices are small rural post offices, that’s usually meant an uncomfortably crowded space and standing room only, making it difficult to have a meaningful discussion.
Not that it’s really mattered. The meetings don’t mean much anyway. Their ostensible purpose is to get feedback from customers about the options on the table — close the office or keep it open at reduced hours — and about their preferences with respect to what hours the office will be open after they’re reduced.
But the options are meaningless. Over 99.8 percent of time, the decision has been to keep the office open. And while customers can use the survey to specify their preferences about the particular hours of operation, by the time the meeting is held (a few weeks after the survey), the Postal Service has already determined what the new hours will be.
The meeting thus becomes simply an opportunity for the Postal Service spokesperson to explain how much money the agency is losing (always due to the Internet) and to make people thankful their post office is just having its hours reduced instead of closing completely.
These 6,300 post offices are the first to have their hours reduced because they have a postmaster vacancy. About 3,000 of them had a vacancy before POStPlan was even announced last year. Another couple of thousand saw their postmaster retire when the Postal Service offered buyout incentives last summer. The remainder developed a vacancy when the postmaster transferred to another office, usually to take a spot that opened when its postmaster retired.
Things have been especially tough for those postmasters who decided to transfer. They’ve had to sever ties with their communities, say good-bye to customers they've known for many years, and try to explain to them why this is happening. Many will also need to relocate their families or else face a ridiculously long commute. This is their reward for their dedication to the Postal Service.
There will be more postmaster vacancies developing as more POStPlan postmasters leave to take new, hopefully more secure positions. At this point it appears that about 7,000, perhaps as many as 8,000, of the 13,000 POStPlan post offices will see their hours reduced before the winter ends.
That leaves about 5,000 or 6,000 POStPlan offices where the postmaster is staying put. They can remain in their jobs until September 2014, at which time they will be released from the Service, and their post offices will finally have their hours reduced.
All of this could change, however. A few days ago, the USPS Board of Governors directed the Postmaster General to accelerate steps to cut costs and to revisit the five-year plan, presumably to add even more cuts. Perhaps they’ll find a way to speed up implementation of POStPlan, or maybe they’ll change the criteria and reduce hours even more. Or maybe they’ll abandon POStPlan and resume last year’s push to close post offices.
PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway has already expressed concern about the directive. If the Postal Service moves too quickly, says Goldway, "there may be people who are without Post Office access at all." That could mean that “the quality of service and the Postal Service's obligation to universal service will be damaged in some way.”
Many customers feel that this has already happened. The news is filled with reports about POStPlan meetings where the public has expressed its anger and frustration toward the reduced hours and the likelihood that the reduction will eventually lead to closure.
In Greenwood, Virginia, for example, the POStPlan meeting was held a few days ago, and the community packed a local church to contest the plan. Scott Peyton, Greenwood Citizens Council chairman, spoke for many people across the country when he told the Postal Service representative, “Our strong encouragement is to leave us alone. Our post office operates efficiently, is part of our community, and makes a profit.”
Peyton complained that the Postal Service wrote the survey for a pre-determined outcome, and he expressed concern that the reduced hours were only the beginning. “I think it’s a killing-you-softly domino effect,” Peyton said. “They say that they aren’t going to close you, then they take measures that will affect you financially, and then they say that they are going to come back a few years later and review you.”
“How in the world can our revenue increase if they’re reducing the hours that our window can perform retail sales?” Peyton asked. “USPS has told us that they don’t have the luxury of looking down the road,” he added. “They’re cutting off their nose to spite their face.”
County Supervisor Ann H. Mallek also had a few words to share with the Postal Service representative. “You’re making changes universally because it might be more convenient for you and might deliver a short-term success rate, but there’s long-term degradation of services,” said Mallek. “We are trying to help people succeed and improve their economic prosperity, and we’re being sabotaged by this effort that you all are making to save your own skin…. You’re throwing under the bus this very profitable rural post office.”