By Steve Hutkins
The Postal Service is in the process of implementing a large-scale initiative to transform its delivery network by relocating letter carriers from post offices to Sorting & Delivery Centers.
The first S&DC went into operation in Athens, Georgia, in mid-November. Its first phase included the post office in Watkinsville, GA, and several others not yet identified. There may have been a second phase in January that encompassed the rest of the 13 “spoke” offices originally listed by the USPS in a letter to the National Association of Postal Supervisors (and to the APWU) on August 12, 2022.
The next round of “conversions” is set for February, followed by more in June. According to a December 2nd letter to NAPS, the February conversions include 17 post offices giving up their carriers to five S&DCs: Utica, NY (phase 1); Gainesville, FL; Woburn, MA; Panama City, FL; and Bryan, TX. (New carrier sorting cases were delivered to the new S&DC in Bryan a few weeks ago, and the same is probably true for these other facilities.)
The December 2nd list also shows the plans for June 2023; they include Utica (phase 2) and nine other S&DCs, with 37 impacted post offices, not all of which have been previously announced.
The three rounds of conversions from November, February and June encompass 15 S&DCs and about 65 post offices and 600 routes. This stage of the rollout has been scaled down considerably from what had been previously announced in August, when a list showed 21 S&DCs and over 200 spoke post offices being converted by the end of February.
The offices on the current list are, on average, about 13 miles and an 18-minute drive from their S&DCs (and that’s based on the optimistic estimates provided by the Postal Service — actual drive times can be several minutes more). The longer drive from S&DCs to routes will mean fewer delivery points per route and necessitate about 5 to 10 percent more routes, with increased costs for labor, fuel and vehicle maintenance.
Some of the offices losing carriers are very small, with just one or two routes. A few are very large, with over 60 routes. The current list averages about 10 routes per post office, somewhat below what the average will be after the full implementation of the initiative, when more of the large urban and suburban offices are included.
The Postal Service owns about 20 of the properties and leases the others. Several of the owned properties are historic buildings from the New Deal. When the carriers go, there will be a lot of excess space in the post office, which will eventually lead to selling buildings, not renewing leases, relocating to smaller spaces, and closing post offices.
Our enhanced list of 55 of the impacted post offices, with more information about each of them, is here. (For the Athens S&DC, only Watkinsville is included; others will be added when they’re identified.)
Here’s a map of the 15 S&DCs and 55 of their spoke offices. If you zoom in, you’ll see the S&DC in red and the spoke offices in blue (February) and purple (June). The map is on Google Maps here.
The S&DC initiative is not something that may or may not happen, sometime in the distant future. It’s happening now, and all indications are that wherever the changes take place, they will be permanent. Carriers won’t be going back to their post offices. About the only thing that may stop the plan is a major pushback from local communities, elected officials, and perhaps the postal unions and management associations.
Some details about the plan have been revealed over the past several months, but the Postal Service has, for the most part, been reluctant to share much with stakeholders and the public. It seems to be taking the position that because the plan is in flux, it’s premature to reveal important information about the initiative’s full scope and potential impacts.
The Postal Service has also not requested an advisory opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission, which would subject the plan to thorough public scrutiny. Such a request is supposed to be made prior to implementing any initiative that constitutes a “change in the nature of postal services on a nationwide or substantially nationwide basis.”
Given that the Postal Service is proceeding with the February and June conversions without having requested an opinion, it appears that postal officials may believe that an advisory opinion is not required because the S&DC plan involves operational realignments that will not change “postal services.” Post offices will remain where they are and continue to serve the public just as they did before losing their carriers. An advisory opinion, officials may be thinking, would only become necessary if and when the Postal Service decides to begin closing post offices and reducing retail hours — steps that will be facilitated by the S&DC plan, but that could be seen as separate measures, at least in the view of postal officials. Or perhaps the Postal Service will request the opinion later this summer, after it adjusts the plan in response to what it learns from the early conversions.
While the introduction of S&DCs may still be in its early stages, the Postal Service has been implementing the plan since the spring of 2022, when leases were signed for large facilities in Charlotte and Atlanta that will serve as S&DCs. And while the Postmaster General has repeatedly said that the plan will make operations more efficient, cut costs, and improve service, he has provided no data showing how this will happen, and he has yet to address the negative impacts the initiative is likely to cause.
The following timeline shows how the S&DC initiative has been implemented, step by step, since it was first mentioned in the Delivering for America plan in early 2021. The timeline also includes the various iterations of the program to buy electric vehicles — which the Postal Service has tied to the S&DC plan — as well as some of the responses of stakeholders. After the timeline is a list summarizing some of the potential impacts of the initiative.
March 23, 2021: The Postal Service releases its Delivering for America plan. It refers, in general terms, to aligning the “delivery unit footprint” to growing package volumes, “optimizing delivery units,” and “streamlining carrier functions” — which suggests that the Postal Service was already envisioning some version of the S&DC plan when it crafted the DFA plan.
March 24, 2022: The Postal Service announces that it will increase its purchase of electric delivery vehicles, from 10 percent of the procurement to 20 percent, “as our financial condition improves and as we refine our network and vehicle operating strategy.”
May 18, 2022: At the Postal Forum the Postmaster General discusses his “initiative to reinvent our delivery network and improve our route structure.” “This is a massive effort,” he says, “that will touch almost 500 network mail processing locations, 10,000 delivery units, 1,000 transfer hubs, and almost 100,000 carrier routes.”
May, 2022: An article in the Charlotte Business Journal (July 25, 2022) reports that the Postal Service has signed a lease on a building of over 620,000 square feet at Gateway85 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The article says the news of the lease was first revealed at a Gaston Business Association event in May, but the USPS was not named as the tenant at that time.
Spring, 2022: According to a real estate market report, the Postal Service has signed the lease on a one-million-square-foot facility in the Palmetto Logistics Park, in Atlanta, Georgia, sometime during April-June 2022.
June 1, 2022: The Postal Service announces that it will increase its order of electric delivery vehicles to about 40 percent, thanks to “delivery network and related route refinements” associated with the S&DC plan.
July 12, 2022: USPS officials meet with APWU representatives to discuss what the union thinks will be a meeting about the new “mega-plants,” like those in Charlotte and Atlanta. Instead, the union is “ambushed with the SDC concept.” APWU officials voice various concerns, especially on the timeline and how they were not given an opportunity for input: “We have not been given the number of employees impacted, where excessing may occur, nor when any excessing may happen.”
July 18, 2022: A preview of an article in the July 2022 issue of Eagle Magazine, shared on liteblue.com, describes a “massive redesign of the postal processing, transportation, and delivery infrastructure,” including a “systematic replacement of many existing facilities.” According to the Eagle, “Detailed plans are already underway with major initiatives initially targeted in the Atlanta, Indianapolis and Charlotte areas.”
July 20, 2022: USPS announces it anticipates increasing the number of delivery EVs to at least 50% of the procurement, reflecting “refinements to the Postal Service’s overall network modernization, route optimizations, improved facility electric infrastructure, and availability of vehicles and technology.”
July 27, 2022: In comments at a forum sponsored by AEI, the Postmaster General explains that the Postal Service “will be aggregating much of our carrier base into larger properly equipped and strategically located sort and delivery centers.” He states that 19,000 carrier units would be reduced to 12,000 or 13,000 by consolidating them into bigger facilities.
July 29, 2022: A USPS presentation shared with UPMA describes the S&DC plan in some detail. It shows ten S&DCs (currently P&DCs) that would absorb 1,460 routes from 153 “spoke” post offices and modeling for two Metro area conversions: Indianapolis, where two S&DCs would absorb 1,058 routes from 35 post offices, and Atlanta, where 2,327 routes at 73 post offices would be consolidated to seven or eight S&DCs, including the South Metro P&DC (the facility in the Palmetto Logistics Park). It also describes conversions from seven stations to the Alabama Avenue carrier annex in Brooklyn, which has been leased for peak season operations. A letter dated July 29, 2022, from USPS Director of Labor Relations Policies and Programs to the president of UPMA, identifies the post offices set for initial conversion to S&DCs (the same ten listed in the presentation).
August 4, 2022: In an article in Government Executive, the president of UPMA says he was caught off guard by the July 29th notice from the Postal Service; his questions have gone largely unanswered; his members have expressed outrage over the plan (because post offices that have only retail offerings typically do not have a postmaster on site); and he may need to work with the Postal Service to offer early retirement or to find new landing spots for impacted personnel. The director of APWU’s clerk division has told members that “USPS has not been forthcoming with much information as they don’t know what this all entails. We have asked questions and they have not been able to provide answers or provide any supporting documentation.”
August 9, 2022: In his keynote address at the annual NALC convention, President Rolando says the potential impact of the S&DC plan on letter carriers is “only now coming into view,” and the union is “reserving judgment until we know more.” He emphasizes that NALC must “be given a seat at the table” and not just “consulted after key decisions have been made,” and the plan will not succeed unless the Postal Service solves its chronic staffing problems first.
August 12, 2022: The Postal Service sends a letter to NAPS and the APWU about the S&DC plan, with a list showing 21 S&DCs and over 200 post offices where carrier conversions will take place. (We’ve created a more detailed version of the list, here.) The letter states that implementation will begin with the Athens, GA, consolidations by September 24; the Brooklyn, NY, conversions in November, and the remainder by February 2023.
August 16, 2022: NAPS sends a letter to its board members saying the intended implementation of this project, which had been set for August 27, 2022, will be held off until after peak season, with the exception of Athens P&DC, which is still scheduled for September. The letter adds that the S&DC plan “will allow Postmasters the ability to reconnect with the community they serve, therefore re-establishing the prestige of the position” — apparently a reference to the fact that postmasters will have more time to spend with customers since they won’t have to spend time supervising carriers.
Late September 2022: The Postmaster General takes the Washington Post on a tour of postal facilities in the Atlanta area to show off the “template” of the new S&DC plan, which “can be replicated in 59 other metro areas across the country.” The tour includes a stop at the new facility in the Palmetto Logistics Park, where the Postmaster General is photographed being shown around by a superintendent.
November 19, 2023: After being postponed several times, the first S&DC in the country goes into operation, in Athens, Georgia. The first phase consolidates about 50 routes from several of the 13 post offices on the August 12 list.
November 25, 2022: In the article about the September tour of Atlanta facilities, the Washington Post reports that the Postmaster General plans to use some of the $3 billion Congress appropriated for electrifying the delivery fleet to install charging stations at S&DCs. “I can’t put [electric] vehicles everywhere,” explains DeJoy, and he cannot “fathom” putting them at small post offices, which he claims lack the power to support EVs.
November 30, 2022: In a letter to NAPS, the Postal Service says that the transition to S&DCs scheduled for February will not result in the reduction of supervisor positions — supervisors will relocate to the S&DCs along with the carriers — and postmasters will remain in their post offices at the same grade.
December 2, 2022: The Postal Service notifies NAPS of the updated schedule of implementation for S&DC sites. The list shows five S&DCs that will go into operation in February — Utica, NY; Gainesville, FL; Woburn, MA; Panama City, FL; and Bryan, TX — and 9 more S&DCs that will start up in June.
December 20, 2022: The Postal Service announces that it will expand its order of delivery EVs even more, again thanks to the delivery network improvement plan. The press release claims that buying more EVs will not be possible unless the S&DC plan is implemented.
December 29, 2022: According to an article in Government Executive, “The first of hundreds of sorting and delivery centers just opened in Athens, Ga., with more slated for February.” The article quotes the president of UPMA saying 2023 is “the year of implementation” for the S&DC initiative. The Postmaster General says his biggest concern is not moving fast enough. “That’s why I’m here seven days a week, 15 hours a day,” says DeJoy, “because we are in a race against time.”
January 12, 2023: USPS Link reports that the Postal Service is sending a postcard to employees that “touts USPS efforts to transform its delivery network” by combining carrier operations into new, larger sorting and delivery centers. The postcard ends with the curious claim that “S&DCs will allow us to serve close to 100 percent of the American public within two days.” What does that even mean?
January 13, 2023: The Postal Service and National Association of Letter Carriers sign two Memorandums of Understanding (M-01990 and M-01991) regarding the transfer of city letter carriers to an S&DC. The MOUs ensure that carriers will retain their craft seniority and bid assignments, but the MOUs don’t appear to apply to carriers at post offices that are discontinued or to those who are transferred to an S&DC from stations and branches (urban post offices subordinate to a city’s main office).
More routes: The July 29, 2022, presentation indicates that the longer distances between S&DCs and routes will mean fewer delivery points per route, thus requiring the Postal Service to add five to ten percent more routes for the areas encompassed by the plan. If the plan includes 100,000 routes — about 43 percent of the routes in the country — that’s 5,000 to 10,000 more routes and an even larger increase in the number of letter carriers.
More delivery vehicles: More routes will require more delivery vehicles and, for electric vehicles, more charging stations, which will add to the costs of the next-generation fleet.
More transportation costs: Data provided in the July 29, 2022, presentation indicate that the average route will increase by about 12 miles, each way. According to a recent OIG report on electrifying the delivery fleet, the average carrier route is about 24 miles. The S&DC plan will thus double the miles traveled in the average route encompassed by the plan. For traditional vehicles, this will increase fuel and maintenance costs, and for the new electric vehicles, it will mean more frequent recharging and shorter battery life.
Increased risk of accidents: The additional driving between S&DCs and routes — much of it during rush hour and often on busy highways — will increase the risk of vehicle accidents. This will add to costs for vehicle repair, workers compensation, and lost time associated with employee injuries. City carriers already have the highest injury rates of all USPS employees. There will also be additional costs for tort claims for property damage and injury to non-USPS personnel.
Longer commutes: The July 29, 2022, presentation indicates that many postal employees will see their commute to the S&DC increase by several miles and minutes, which will add to their personal transportation costs and cause many unpaid hours for commuting time. A chart in the presentation shows that the median commute to the new Athens S&DC will increase by about 11 minutes each way, from 16 to 27 minutes. Some employees are seeing their 30-minute commute turn into an hour. The Postmaster General has himself acknowledged the longer commutes, telling employees in a video message in July 2022, “For some of you, this might mean you have to travel a little further to get to work.”
Morale and employee retention problems: Working conditions at the S&DCs and the additional costs of longer commutes in unpaid hours, fuel and maintenance may exacerbate employee retention problems. City carrier assistant positions have the highest turnover of all non-career employees, with rural carriers coming in second. Unavailability of carriers is also one of the main causes of undelivered or partially delivered routes and delayed mail. In an interview for KBTX about the future Bryan S&DC, retired carrier Jamie Partridge of Community and Postal Workers United (CPWU) noted that “letter carriers are already working into the night and dark, retiring early, hiring on and then quitting,” and the S&DC plan will “just accelerate that process.” According to an article in the Oconee Enterprise about the startup of the Athens S&DC right at peak season, “One carrier noted that she was not able to start her 77-mile route until 11:10 a.m., leaving only five hours of daylight to deliver to 386 mailboxes during the busiest time of year.”
Displacing and eliminating clerk positions: The clerks in post offices not only provide services at the window but also support carrier operations. When carriers are relocated to S&DCs, there’s less work for clerks at the post office. Initially, some clerks may be relocated to the S&DC or to another post office. A recent piece about the Watkinsville post office, part of the Athens S&DC, bemoans how “some beloved front-desk employees have been transferred out of the county,” leaving the post office understaffed and customers complaining about late and missing mail and long lines at the window. Eventually, many clerk positions will be eliminated. At the AEI forum, the Postmaster General said, “Right now, to get to break even, I think we may need to get 50,000 people out of the organization.” With the number of letter carriers actually increasing, the job cuts will have to come elsewhere, and clerks will be the hardest hit.
Displacing postmasters, managers and supervisors: When carriers are relocated from post offices, those in managerial positions will have fewer employees to supervise. At the Watkinsville post office, for example, there were about 40 employees — 31 carriers and 9 doing customer service — and there are probably just a half dozen remaining. The Postal Service has told NAPS that “there will be no reduction in the number of supervisor positions in the sites scheduled for implementation in February.” Some supervisors will relocate to the S&DC and oversee carriers from there. The letter to NAPS also indicates that postmasters at the spoke offices on the February list will remain at the same grade, but if the office becomes vacant, the level of the office may change. While the Postal Service is trying to mitigate impacts at the outset, eventually many postmaster and supervisor positions will be downgraded or eliminated. Several thousand employees could be impacted.
Downgrading post offices: When a multi-functional independent post office becomes simply a retail outlet, it’s possible that it will be downgraded to a facility subordinate to the S&DC, similar to the way stations and branches are subordinate to the city’s main post office and the way POStPlan removed postmasters at thousands of small independent post offices, which were then put under the supervision of the postmaster at a another post office. According to the NAPS website, the Athens S&DC installation is staffed by a postmaster who oversees all operations of the S&DC; it’s possible that this postmaster could eventually oversee all the “spoke” post offices of the S&DC as well.
Relocating post offices: When delivery operations are removed from thousands of post offices, the excess space is likely to be cited as a reason to relocate some offices to a smaller space, most typically in a shopping center.
Selling USPS buildings: If the Postal Service owns the building, the excess space will be cited as a reason to sell the property. The December 29 article in Government Executive reports that one of the cost savings from the S&DC initiative will be “real estate,” and postal officials plan to “get rid of buildings.” Among the post offices set to lose their carriers in February and June are several historic New Deal buildings: Frankfort, NY (1941); Wakefield, MA (1934); Ilion, NY (1936); Tipton, IN (1936); Muncy, PA (1937) and Panama City (Downtown Station), FL, as well as the post office in Lock Haven, PA, completed in 1921.
Cutting hours at post offices: Removing carriers will facilitate the Postal Service’s initiative to “align hours of operation to customer demands at low traffic Post Offices,” one of the cost-saving measure identified in the Delivering for America plan.
Closing stations and branches: Removing carriers will help the Postal Service to “consolidate low-traffic stations and branches,” another cost-saving measure identified in the Delivering for America plan. There are currently about 2,700 stations and branches with delivery units, as well as 1,700 finance units without carrier operations. Some unspecified number of these facilities will be closed.
Getting undelivered mail: Getting mail and packages that couldn’t be delivered (signature required, too big for the mailbox, etc.) will become more complicated and take longer due to the new logistics: Can customers pick up the item at the local post office or do they have to go to the S&DC? Where is the item? If the customer chooses redelivery, how long before it goes out again for another attempt?
Delivering to post office boxes: Under the current system, a contract truck takes the carrier mail and PO box mail from the processing center to the post office each morning. Under the S&DC system, the carriers will deliver the PO box mail to the post office (as well as picking up the sent mail at the end of the day). The extra stops will make it more difficult to do the regular route in the designated time. And if there’s not enough space on the truck for both the route mail and the PO Box mail, an extra trip will be necessary, and the PO Box mail will arrive later at the post office.
Changes in delivery unit mailings: Big customers — like Amazon, FedEx and UPS — that use the Postal Service for last-mile delivery will appreciate being able to drop their packages at an S&DC rather than trucking them to individual delivery units at post offices — probably one of the main reasons for introducing the S&DC system in the first place. (Apparently last-mile delivery will soon mean last-twenty.) But it will be a different story for small businesses. In order to use the new USPS Connect, they’ll have do their mailings at the S&DC instead of their local post office, which cancels out one of the main selling points of USPS Connect, namely that small businesses could drop shipments at their local post office for delivery to addresses in the ZIP area served by their post office.
Charging stations at S&DCs, not post offices: The Postal Service has not committed to locating charging stations at post offices, and it appears uninterested in making them available to the public when they’re not being used for postal vehicles. The Postmaster General says he can’t fathom putting them at small rural post offices because they lack the juice. So the charging stations will be installed at S&DCs — and paid for by taxpayers with the funds appropriated by Congress in the Inflation Reduction Act. Plus, says the Postal Service, it won’t be possible to electrify the delivery fleet unless it can go forward with the S&DC plan. Yet according to a March 2022 OIG report on EVs at post offices, “Some facilities may already be capable of supporting an electric fleet with minimal improvements because they have the necessary electrical equipment installed to power level 2 chargers,” while other facilities may simply require some retrofitting.
Still no external review
Despite the potential impacts on employees and customers, the vast scale of the plan, and the fact that implementation has already begun, the S&DC initiative has not yet been subject to any kind of external review.
The House Oversight Committee would be a likely venue for such a review, but now that Republicans control the House, that’s not happening. The Senate could hold a hearing or commission an analysis, but that’s probably not going to happen either.
The Office of Inspector General announced in November that it was beginning an audit to “evaluate Postal Service’s data models used to determine sites for conversion into S&DCs, cost and savings impacts associated with the conversions, as well as how those plans were communicated to external stakeholders and internally.” But the results will not be published until June 2023, by which time 15 S&DCs will already be in operation, impacting more than 60 post offices.
The employee unions and associations could press the Postal Service to make more information public, but they don’t seem interested in making a row. NALC may be anticipating thousands of new members, while the APWU, NAPS, and UPMA may be waiting to see how the plan plays out for their members.
The best option for a full public review of the plan would be an advisory opinion by the Postal Regulatory Commission, but under 39 U.S.C. 3661, the Postal Service itself must initiate the process by requesting an opinion.
Back in 2021, the attorneys general of 21 states filed a complaint with the PRC arguing that the Postal Service should have requested an advisory opinion on the Delivering for America plan “as a whole,” rather than in a piecemeal way that considers only some of its components (like the changes in service standards) and only in isolation from the others. The complaint argued that waiting until implementation of the 10-year plan is imminent means that “the Commission will have to wait a decade” to issue an advisory opinion, at which point “it will be too late” for public participation. In December 2021, the Commission dismissed the complaint, explaining that the advisory opinion statute doesn’t apply to “broad strategic plans.”
In December 2022, the Commission finally asked the Postal Service a few questions about the S&DC plan, but they were restricted to how the changes might affect the new USPS Connect product. The Postal Service didn’t want to say much, telling the Commission, “The introduction of Sort and Delivery Centers (S&DCs) is in early stages, and the Postal Service intends to study and learn more from experience in order to determine the best practices to be employed in future roll outs.”
Last week, as part of the PRC’s Annual Compliance Review, I submitted a motion that included earlier versions of the S&DC implementation timeline and impact list from above, along with a request that the Commission ask the Postal Service if and when it planned to submit a request for an advisory opinion. The Postal Service objected to the question, saying it “has no foundation in or bearing on the substance of the ACR” and “concerns prospective actions, not matters within the past fiscal year.”
At this point, it’s not even certain that the Postal Service will even request an advisory opinion on the S&DC plan. It would be quite amazing if the PRC never weighed in one of the most massive transformations of the postal system in recent decades.
In the meantime, the implementation of the S&DC initiative continues apace. The rollout rolls on.