Lost in Limbo: Post Offices Under Suspension

Steve HutkinsFeatured

Steve Hutkins

When the Postal Service considers closing a post office, it must go through a lengthy discontinuance process, with 30 steps of administrative review and opportunities for public input. But when there’s an emergency, like unsafe building conditions after a weather event, the Postal Service can close a post office on a moment’s notice. Even when there’s not an obvious emergency, like an issue over renewing the lease, the Postal Service may invoke a suspension to close the post office.

Whatever the cause, after an emergency suspension takes place, the Postal Service is required to follow up by correcting the problem — having the building repaired, moving to a new location, etc. — or by proceeding to a discontinuance process to study closing the office permanently. But the law does not require the Postal Service to complete this process within a definite time frame. As a result, some post offices end up in the limbo of suspension for many years, and a large backlog of unresolved suspensions develops.

In the late 1990s, the backlog grew to over 500 suspensions, and the issue became the subject of a Congressional hearing. But the problem persisted. As of fiscal year 2012, there were about 200 offices under suspension, many of them going back several years.

In 2012 the Postal Service implemented POStPlan, which reduced hours at 11,000 post offices as an alternative to closing them. But post offices continued to close by emergency suspension. Over the next four years, the number of suspended offices in the backlog increased from 211 to 662.

The Postal Regulatory Commission treats these suspensions as a “customer access” issue in its annual compliance reviews, and it has repeatedly encouraged the Postal Service to resolve the cases, one way or another. Over the past five years, the Postal Service has managed to close the books on 450 of the suspensions. Nearly all of them ended with a final determination to discontinue the post office permanently.

At the same that it was resolving older suspensions, however, the Postal Service was adding new ones to the list. At the end of fiscal year 2021, there were about 450 suspended offices — 206 from FY 2016 or before and about 240 occurring since FY 2016.

Last month the PRC opened a Public Inquiry docket to examine how the the resolution of these suspensions might be expedited, with particular emphasis on the older cases. The inquiry is not about individual post office suspensions or closings. Rather, it will examine “issues impeding the Postal Service’s progress in resolving the suspended post offices in a timely manner” and consider “procedures or courses of action for how the Postal Service may expeditiously resolve suspended post offices.”

The Commission has indicated that it’s also interested in “data analysis related to the suspended post offices, including, but not limited to, the spatial analysis of the suspended post offices.” The inquiry will also consider what might be done to prevent backlogs from developing in the future.

In its quarterly and annual updates on the suspensions, the Postal Service provides the Commission with lists of the suspended offices. The updates contain information about when and why the offices were suspended and, at least in the case of the older suspensions, their current status in the discontinuance process.  The lists are helpful, but they don’t provide much information — not even the address of the post office.

To provide a clearer picture of the suspensions and to lend some transparency to the process of resolving them as it unfolds, we’ve created a Suspension Dashboard. It includes a page for each of the 450 suspended offices, with information about its suspension status, community demographics and facility data. The dashboard also provides the address for the suspended office and, when possible, a street view of the building.

The dashboard should make it easier to review the hundreds of suspensions in the current backlog. It may also be useful in developing the kind of analysis that the Commission has invited. A few initial observations, for example:

  • About 90 suspensions took place between fiscals years 1984 and 2012, 123 during 2012-2016, 96 during 2017-2020, and 129 during 2021.
  • About 285 of the post offices were part of POStPlan, 255 of them open 2 or 4 hours a day. The average distance to the nearest post office (often another POStPlan office open just a few hours) was about 7 miles, and the distance to the administrative post office (open 8 hours a day) was about 12 miles.
  • More than 200 of the suspensions were due to lease-related issues; 134 due to safety and health concerns; 36 due to building damage, and 23 due to a natural disaster.
  •  Of the 366 suspensions for which zip-code census data was readily available, 250 occurred in rural communities, with a total population of about 160,000. The total population for all of these zip codes was 2.7 million.

The information on the dashboard is based primarily on USPS filings with the PRC, but it’s been cobbled together from various lists, census data, Wikipedia and whatever one can find Googling around. Many of the suspensions happened so long ago it’s difficult to learn much about them. The dashboard is therefore incomplete and it has many inaccuracies and missing data points. If you see mistakes, have more information, or want to share a photo, please use the contact form here.

Comments on the PRC’s Public Inquiry docket are due by April 29, 2022. Instructions for commenting are here. Material filed in the docket will be available on the Commission’s website here.


To learn more:

Notice and Order Providing an Opportunity to Comment on the Postal Service’s Process for Resolving Suspended Post Offices, PRC, Feb. 3, 2022

“U.S. Postal Service Emergency Suspension Process,” USPS OIG, Sept. 24, 2018

Post Office discontinuances and suspensions: A decade in review,” Save the Post Office, Feb. 26, 2018

An archive of posts about suspensions on Save the Post Office is here.