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POST OFFICES: STAMPED OUT? USPS might cut 15 city locations

AS MANY as 15 Philadelphia post offices and branches - one in four city facilities - could be closed early next year as the U.S. Postal Service deals with an expected $7 billion deficit and an enormous decline in mail volume.

Darlene Butler leaves the Bridgeport Post Office after dropping off some mail. Butler said 'Unbelievable, It's the only one, unbelievable,' when hearing that her branch might be closing. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
Darlene Butler leaves the Bridgeport Post Office after dropping off some mail. Butler said 'Unbelievable, It's the only one, unbelievable,' when hearing that her branch might be closing. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)Read more

AS MANY as 15 Philadelphia post offices and branches - one in four city facilities - could be closed early next year as the U.S. Postal Service deals with an expected $7 billion deficit and an enormous decline in mail volume.

The Postal Service plans a national restructuring as it faces a projected decline of 28 billion pieces of mail in the 2009 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, according to figures released this week by the Government Accountability Office.

Postal officials blame the need to consolidate facilities on a major shift in customers' mailing practices, including increased reliance on e-mail and the paying of bills online.

The local facilities were on a national list of 677 "candidates for closing," which was "pared down" from 3,243 facilities more than a month ago, said Paul Smith, spokesman for the USPS six-state eastern area.

Eight other Pennsylvania cities - down from 12 cities earlier - are also targeted: Norristown, York, Reading, Harrisburg, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Erie and Pittsburgh. Camden and Trenton are also on the list.

A four-month management study here will determine if all 15 city facilities will be closed or consolidated, or if just a few will be affected, according to postal authorities. The study will focus on the impact on employees, service standards, cost savings and customer access.

The national list of potential closures will be updated monthly.

"It's too early to show the impact on employees," Smith said. "Nobody would be laid off; they'd likely be transferred."

Or they could be offered early retirement, said Yvonne Yeager, a USPS spokeswoman. A series of early retirements have been offered to employees since last year.

Gwen Ivey, president of of the Philadelphia American Postal Workers Union Local 89, said that the unions had not been notified before USPS headquarters posted the list on its Web site.

"We have the legal obligation to bargain for our members during the downsizing," she said, adding that she wanted to prepare her 2,500-member union before a public announcement.

Representatives from area locals for the National Association of Letter Carriers and National Postal Mail Handlers Union could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Ivey identified about 70 to 100 APWU-represented employees who would be affected by the closings.

Some stations are "so chronically understaffed that management will close these stations daily for several hours because there are not enough employees to properly staff these areas," she said.

In turn, customers must stand in line for long periods of time, she added.

In some facilities, management installed vending machines to alleviate congestion, but later removed them from almost all city stations, she said.

The Postal Service has 36,700 facilities, including 27,000 post offices and 4,800 stations and branches. Two-thirds of them are in urban and suburban areas, including 60 in Philadelphia.

In a survey of staff completed in fiscal year 2008, Yeager said, there were 663,238 employees: 11,370 in management and 651,868 in the field. Since then, there has been a decline of 25,000 workers.

In filings to the Postal Regulatory Commission, postal officials said that notices will be sent to customers if their facility is under consideration for closing. They will be asked to fill out surveys, which will be available by mail, or for pickup in their post office.

"It is impossible to predict how many stations and branches" would be consolidated, or the overall impact on mail service or customers, Alice M. Vangorder, acting manager of customer-service operations, told the Postal Regulatory Commission a month ago in filings.

Urban and suburban customers are expected to be affected, especially because "stations and branches within a few minutes walk of each other" will likely be targeted, Vangroder said.

Once the sites are identified, special consideration will be given to facilities that serve customers who are non-English speaking, elderly, economically disadvantaged or have limited mobility.

After public comments are submitted, they will be reviewed by the Philadelphia district before it submits its final proposal to headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The final decision will be made by the vice president of delivery and post-office operations in the Washington, D.C., headquarters.

The Postal Service says that customers may seek services in non-USPS outlets, including the usps.com Web site, and that stamps are available at 50,000 supermarkets, retail stores and vending machines.

"Our customers who do business online find it much easier online to print out shipping labels, buy stamps and get free packaging materials versus those who want to go to the post office," Smith said.

According to documents, it may take more than 60 days to close a branch or station.

No postal office, station or branch will be closed before Oct. 2, according to USPS.