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


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 scramble for positions

Even though the process of reducing hours at post offices won’t get started until September, the game of musical chairs has already begun.  POStPlan postmasters have until 2014 before they will be forced to leave their positions, but most of them aren’t waiting.  They’re looking for a new position now.  The problem is there aren’t enough postmaster positions for all of them. 

There are 13,167 POStPlan post offices set to become part-time RPMOs.  On a spreadsheet the Postal Service gave the Postal Regulatory Commission, there are 3,118 post offices marked as not having a postmaster.  That leaves about 10,000 impacted postmasters whose post offices are going to have reduced hours.  (That estimate is along the same lines as the 9,800 identified as “impacted” postmasters on the League’s presentation.)

We don’t know how many postmasters will take the retirement incentive by July 2 or how many of them will be POStPlan postmasters.  The League says about 70% of the 9,800 are already eligible to retire, and they have the most reason to take the Special Incentive.  The offer was made to all but a thousand or so of the country’s 22,200 postmasters, but most likely, the vast majority of those accepting it work at POStPlan offices.  Let’s say 4,500 postmasters are retiring, and 3,500 of them are at POStPlan post offices.   

That leaves 6,500 postmasters impacted by POStPlan.  About 1,500 of them are already part-time at Level 51, 53, and 55 offices.  The hours will be reduced at some of them, and wages may be affected as well, but let’s say a thousand of these postmasters choose to stay put.

All told, then, there are could be 5,500 POStPlan postmasters looking for a new position.  How many positions are available for them?

On May 25, the Postal Service posted about 1,600 openings for postmasters.  If 3,500 of the 4,500 postmasters who take the retirement incentive are POStPlan postmasters, a thousand positions will be opening up at regular full-time post offices over the coming months.  That adds up to about 2,600 openings. 

The POStPlan list contains 900 post offices being upgraded to Level 18 that don’t have a postmaster right now, but these may be among the 1,600 openings that were posted, so we won’t add them to the total for now.  You can see a list of the 900 here, and a map here.

Overall, then, something like 5,500 postmasters will be competing for 2,600 positions. The chances of landing a new postmaster job over the next few months look to be about 50-50. 

The odds aren’t going to get better as time goes by.  More positions may open up next year, but the vast majority of the openings will occur soon because of the retirement incentive offer.  Plus, postmasters are being given priority on many positions right now.  A lot of POStPlan postmasters are thinking they’d better get a new job now, while they can.

Very roughly speaking then, of the 10,000 postmasters impacted by POStPlan, about a third will retire, a third will find another postmaster position (or stay put in their current part-time office), and a third will find themselves without a place when the music stops. 


When too many is not enough

While there will be too many POStPlan postmasters for them all to find a new postmaster job, there’s a more immediate problem: There aren’t enough trained workers to staff all the POStPlan post offices that will be converted to RMPOs in a few months.

The Postal Service says that it will begin holding community meetings in September and then start reducing hours at the 13,000 POStPlan offices.  It will begin with 2,200 post offices that currently have a postmaster vacancy.  You can see a list of those offices here.

The Postal Service has been staffing these offices with a Postmaster Relief or clerk acting as an Officer-in-Charge.  Some of these workers will stay on when the post office is downgraded to part-time hours since it won’t affect their hourly wage very much.  Let’s say about 1,000 of the 2,200 downgraded post offices without a postmaster need a new part-time worker.

According to our ballpark estimate, there will also be 3,500 POStPlan post offices where the postmaster is retiring.  Some of these offices are going to need a full-time replacement for a couple of months — the shift to part-time hours can’t begin until September — and that could be a problem right off.  Come the fall, these 3,500 post offices will also need a new part-time worker to run the office.

In addition, there are the POStPlan post offices where the postmaster will be leaving to take a new position at another full-time post office.  As explained above, there could be 2,600 of them.

That adds up to over 7,000 post offices that will need part-time staffing starting in the fall. 

The Postal Service is hoping that some retiring postmasters will stay on, and they are being given an opportunity to get their full pension and work part-time for about $12 an hour.  Perhaps a few will stick around to “serve their community” and make some extra money to ease the way into retirement, but it’s not likely many will take the big pay cut — not enough to make much of a dent in the 7,000 vacancies anyway.

How is the Postal Service going to find and train several thousand new part-time workers in such a short time span?  These jobs pay about $12 an hour, most of them are for just two or four hours a day, and they have almost no benefits.  Plus, with all the cutbacks, there’s not going to be much opportunity for advancement to a full-time position with the Postal Service, so these are pretty much dead-end jobs.  One wonders if the Postal Service is prepared for what it’s getting itself into.


It all depends on what you mean by “implementation”

According to federal regulations, the Postal Service is required to wait ninety days after submitting a Request for an Advisory Opinion to the Postal Regulatory Commission before it begins implementing a change in service that will have nationwide impacts.   The Postal Service submitted the Request on POStPlan on May 25, and it won’t start reducing hours before September.  The Postal Service is thus saying that it is adhering to the 90-day regulation because the change in service won’t actually occur until the hours are reduced.

But implementation of POStPLan is already well underway.  The changes in regulations that permit a post office to be operated by someone other than a postmaster and that enable the Postal Service to downgrade a post office into a RMPO were made last last year.  Offering the Special Incentive was a key part of the plan, as is shifting postmasters out of POStPlan offices into new positions.  The Postal Service wants to get as many postmasters out of the way as possible, as soon as possible.   There are also many other activities in progress, like shifting carriers away from POStPlan offices and preparing to upgrade offices into Administrative Post Offices. 

The Postal Service has thus narrowed the definition of “implementation” to mean simply reducing hours.  The many other elements of the plan are being implemented without calling them “implementation.”

When the PRC issues its Advisory Opinion on POStPlan in August or September, it will just be an interesting aside.  The hours at thousands of post offices will be reduced almost immediately after the Opinion comes out.  POStPlan is already a done deal.