By Brian Hickey
My mom was a travel agent. My dad worked as a letter carrier, among other jobs within the U.S. Postal Service. And I, obviously, am a journalist. All that should make one thing abundantly clear: My family deeply understands what happens when technology rises up and wages war on professions.
I needn't delve much deeper than mentioning the proliferation of book-your-own-trip Web sites or the suffering and/or closing of newspapers. The lesson learned is that you can't outmaneuver inevitabilities.
Given a father, an uncle, a pair of cousins, and many friends among the 20,000 postal employees in and around Philadelphia, and the likelihood that I might have followed in their footsteps, I can't help but be worried about the plummeting mail volume. In 2007, the Postal Service moved 212 billion pieces of mail; this year, it's expected to be down to 180 billion pieces. Missing from that "neither snow nor rain nor sleet nor heat nor gloom of night" motto is "nor unprecedented recession."
Will this lead to post-office closings and layoffs? A recent announcement out of Washington caught my eye: The U.S. Postal Service is reviewing operations - "screening" in their parlance - to pinpoint underused stations and branches for potential closure. The number of closings being bandied about is anywhere from 3,000 to 3,400 of the 34,000 locations.
Local Postal Service spokesman Paul F. Smith told me that, while "there are no plans to close any post offices in Philadelphia, South Jersey, and Delaware," the review could turn up some underused facilities. At that point, "If any local stations or branches are identified, we would certainly reach out to our customers to discuss any proposed plans." No changes would be made before the start of the next fiscal year, in October.
But considering that the Postal Service's nationwide focus is on underuse in metropolitan markets, it's safe to predict that some postal locations will be shuttered in Philadelphia. A quick mental scan of Center City immediately lands a couple on the chopping block.
Greg Frey, a national spokesman for the Postal Service, broke it down like this: With one postmaster but a number of offices, stations, and branches scattered about, Philadelphia is unlike a small, central Pennsylvania town with one post office and one postmaster. The latter can't be touched, but the former is already under thorough review.
If a postal center is still relevant - think certified mail or package services that can't be done elsewhere - the Postal Service says it won't be touched. But those that are lightly used and in fairly close physical proximity to another office would be at risk.
Not only are about 30 percent of stamp-buyers doing so at supermarkets, banks, ATMs, and on their computers, but the Postal Service doesn't receive any tax funding. They're only as good as their bottom line. Less revenue coming in means less spending.
"We have to live within our means, and sometimes that means cutting," Frey said. "We need to be efficient."
Think of it as the next phase in mail-service evolution: pony to Jeep to iMac. Forward-thinking technological initiatives do right by customers. But if they mean even fewer will need to go to the post office or use mail for any correspondence, it's hard to see how job losses aren't the next shoes to drop. Some employees wonder whether economic realities will force the Postal Service to shift from not replacing retirees and scaling back hours to full-fledged layoffs.
The Postal Service has already asked Congress to allow it to drop Saturday from the current six-day-a-week service. Surveys show Americans are much more accepting of that than they would be of another stamp-price increase. But once Oct. 1 rolls around, you can bet 44 cents that there will be plenty fighting to keep local post offices open.
Smith told me, "We're just looking to balance our brick-and-mortar facilities with our clicks-and-mortar future." I'm hoping any succeses they have can be applied to my profession of choice. At 36, I'd rather not have to strap that big heavy mailbag over my shoulder and take to the streets.