Kayla Gahagan for Al Jazeera America

Postal Service workers and rural communities fear post office closures

A cost-reduction plan cuts hours at 9K offices nationwide, stoking fears small towns could see postal services ended

FAIRBURN, South Dakota — Mark Jamison worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 30 years. At the end of his career, he made $56,000 a year plus benefits as a postmaster in Webster, North Carolina. He came in early, stayed late, and called to check on elderly residents when he hadn’t seen them for a few days.

Jamison retired early, replaced by someone he said had no postal experience, and earned much less working part-time due to the post office’s hours being reduced to six a day under a nationwide plan to reduce costs.

Webster's post office is one of thousands across the U.S. affected by the U.S. Postal Service’s latest plan to dig itself out of debt – instead of shuttering the doors of small, rural post offices dotting the countryside, the postal service has reduced hours, cut delivery routes and built cluster boxes to save money. 

Jamison and other rural postal workers fear closures will come next. In July 2011, the Postal Service announced that nearly 3,700 post offices would be studied for possible closure. Between 2001 and 2013, 374 post offices closed.

Jamison argued that post offices are “community infrastructure,” especially in rural areas.

“They provide a lot more than people going in and mailing something. There are intangible values. In some places, it’s the only contact people have with the government. To just turn it in to a store with revenue doesn’t serve those purposes anymore,” he said.

The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 transformed what used to be the Post Office Department into the United States Postal Service, an independent agency of the executive branch. Besides an annual reimbursement for providing free mail for the blind and absentee ballots for military stationed overseas, since 1982 the Postal Service has not received tax dollars and relies on the sale of postage and other products and services to fund operations. The Postal Service’s current debt is $15 billion.

The post office in Fairburn, South Dakota, a rural town with a population of less than 100 people.
Kayla Gahagan for Al Jazeera America

The strategy – called “post plan” – is expected to save the service half a billion dollars annually once it is completely implemented this January. Announced in May 2012, the plan realigned retail window hours based on customer use. Since it started, more than 9,000 post offices have seen retail operating hours reduced to two, four, or six hours per day.

Post Service spokesman Peter Nowacki said the plan is aimed at balancing customer needs and declining volumes and revenues.

“We have to align service hours offered to better match actual customer demand and reduce costs,” he said.

The shift to electronic forms of communication has had a profound impact on the entire Postal Service, not just rural post offices, Nowacki said.

Since 2006, overall mail volumes have declined by more than 25 percent, with single-piece First-Class Mail, like birthday cards and bills, down about 60 percent from its peak. Fewer people buying fewer stamps means visits to post offices declined as well.

But customers, particularly elderly people who still conduct business by paper mail, have been impacted by the cuts.

Larry Livingston, who lives across the street from the Fairburn Post Office in western South Dakota, is one of them.

“Nowadays everything’s on computer,” he said. “I’m just not what you call computer literate.” All of his correspondences and bills are sent by traditional mail service.

He said that while reducing window hours makes sense, he worries about what the future will bring; it would be a hardship for people living in rural communities to have to travel to larger towns or cities every time they want to mail something or pick up their mail, he said.

The post office, particularly in rural communities, is more than a store, Jamison said.

“Post Masters were an asset to the community,” he said, a connection that has been lost because dedicated, full-time, experienced postal workers are increasingly being replaced with inexperienced people who have taken the part-time job on the side, resulting in a loss of quality service.

Critics of the post plan say the reduction of hours at offices in rural communities has degraded service and derailed retirement plans of postmasters.

Some also believe the plan is a ruse intended to make post offices less essential to rural communities so there will be less opposition when they are closed.

“There’s nothing positive about it at all,” said Jamison. “It’s a scheme. They’re undermining the connection of the community with the post office so people don’t care. It’s worse and worse service.”

DeElda Williams’s plan was to work hard and retire at 62. Instead, she retired a year ago at 60, cutting into her pension and retirements funds.

“In September, they were going to cut my hours to four a day and my pay would have been cut in half,” said Williams, who had worked at the Fairburn Post Office for 26 years.

Williams said eventually poor service will force customers in rural communities to head to bigger cities – giving the Postal Service a reason to close smaller offices.

“It’s a way of closing little post offices and making everybody look good; they’ll come out smelling like a rose,” Williams said. “Nobody wants to work for four hours.”

But Nowacki said the Postal Service is still effectively reaching its mission each year, “to provide secure, reliable and affordable delivery to every address in America.”

He said in developing their cost-cutting plan, the Postal Service held thousands of public meetings and conducted surveys, and the response was clear.

“Customers and communities around the country [asked] that their post offices remain open,” he said.

Nowacki added that the Post Office still recruits quality employees.

“The Postal Service prides itself on outstanding customer service and the organization’s part-time employees have always been a valued and vital component of the postal workforce,” he said. “We are fully confident in the ability of all of our employees to provide quality service to our customers.”

Sharlene Pawelski at the Fairburn, South Dakota post office.
Kayla Gahagan for Al Jazeera America

On a windy fall day, Sharlene Pawelski stood behind the counter at the Fairburn Post Office. Outside, the community was quiet, with many of its residents at work and school in nearby towns. One customer came in two hours.

When Williams retired, Pawelski took over as postmaster. The post office’s open hours dropped from eight hours a day to 4 hours and 20 minutes. She works six hours on Saturdays.

The reduction in hours means they haven’t lost everything, she said. “I still have a job.”

Fairburn, which has a population of less than 100 people, has seen business and a school closure over the years. It has made the post office even more important, she said.

“This is the heart of the community,” she said.

Nowacki said customers across the U.S. have adjusted well to the reduction in hours and view it as a good compromise.

“While change always brings concerns and a period of adjustment, we’ve found that many of our customers are quite understanding of the reasons we are making these changes and pleased to discover that their local post offices will remain open,” Nowacki said.

The Postal Service delivers 40 percent of the world’s total mail to 153 million addresses, over a larger geographical area than any other post in the world.

“We touch every household and business nearly every day,” he said.

But Williams wonders if the Postal Service is at a crossroads, and taking the wrong route. She has watched as neighbors and friends started using post offices in larger towns.

“Eventually they will close these smaller ones,” she said.

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