published Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Chattanooga area post offices cut staff and hours but stay open

Loretta Gaithe exits the U.S. Postal Service facility at 6050 Shallowford Road on Wednesday.
Loretta Gaithe exits the U.S. Postal Service facility at 6050 Shallowford Road on Wednesday.
Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse.
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After 20 years with the Postal Service, Paul Adams isn't sure how much longer he'll have a job.

The United States Postal Service, which expects to lose more than $14 billion this year without changes, plans to reduce the hours of more than 13,000 rural post offices, including 48 in the Chattanooga area. The plan is expected to save $500 million a year by reducing full-time staff.

The Apison office where Adams works as the officer in charge could see its hours reduced by 25 percent.

That cut means fewer hours and less pay for Adams and the office's five other employees. Without that pay, Adams isn't sure he'll be able to support his wife and two young kids.

"As I look at the news, that's pretty much par for the course today. I'm going to try to make the best of it," he said. "I'm keeping my spirits up."

The Postal Service needs to take drastic action to avoid bankruptcy. The agency expects its annual losses could climb to $21 billion by 2016 unless it cuts expenses. The federally mandated but not federally funded organization has struggled to stay solvent in the face of declining mail volume and onerous pension requirements.

The organization will offer more than 21,000 postmasters early retirement incentives as they scale back post office hours over the next two years. Ideally, enough will take the early out so that the postmasters who aren't near retirement will still have jobs.

Judy Stocker, president of the American Postal Workers Union in Chattanooga, said it's clear the Postal Service has to take steps to avoid bankruptcy, and this announcement is preferable to post office closings.

"It's not bad news. It's not the gloom and doom I was personally expecting," she said. "It's not that I'm not sympathetic to the Postmasters. They've kind of been fat for a long time, and they've not taken any cuts in their ranks like the craft employees have, so to me it's a step in the right direction."

Postal Service officials will hold community meetings over the next several months to discuss the reduced office hours. Some under-used offices could drop from eight hours a day to only two hours of operation a day.

The scale-back plan is a significant change from the Post Office's original aim to close thousands of offices across the country. Post Office Spokesman David Walton said his organization changed its plans in response to the clear desire of communities to keep their offices.

"We looked really hard at that information we got from them and the consensus was a lot of people don't want to lose their post offices," he said. "Even though they may be open a couple or four or six hours, that may be better than not having a post office at all."

The Chattanooga area could still face Postal Service closures. The Shallowford Road Processing and Distribution Center could be shut down as early as May 16, when a Postal Service moratorium on closures expires. However, such a soon closure is highly unlikely as pending federal legislation would require it stay open.

R.J. Hoffman, an area state vice president for the postal workers union, said moves like this one could help avoid closure altogether.

"It's still an uphill battle," he said. "We're taking a little bit of it at a time, but we're getting there slowly but surely."

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