GREENFIELD — While the U.S. Postal Service’s plans to stop delivering mail on Saturdays marks a cutback in service, most customers and employees were taking the news in stride Wednesday, hoping the step will at least help keep the agency afloat.
The move, set to begin the week of Aug. 5, is expected to save the postal service about $2 billion annually. Parcels will still be delivered on Saturdays and post offices now open on Saturdays will remain open on Saturdays, which means post office boxes will still be filled on that day.
But businesses and homes will only receive mail Monday through Friday.
The proposed change is based on what appears to be a legal loophole. Congress has long included a ban on five-day-only delivery in its spending bills, but because the federal government is now operating under a temporary spending measure rather than an appropriations bill, Postmaster General and CEO Patrick R. Donahoe said it is the agency’s interpretation that it can make this change itself.
“Our financial condition is urgent,” Donahoe said in a press conference.
The announcement comes on the heels of reductions in the numbers and hours of small rural post offices. For example, hours for Wilkinson’s post office will be reduced next month.
Still, postal workers say the move to end Saturday delivery makes business sense.
Greenfield Postmaster Mike Johnson had a staff meeting Wednesday morning to let employees know of the change before customers began asking questions.
“Mail volume has decreased, and I think we’re just taking positive steps to adjust to our society the way it is today,” Johnson said.
Layoffs probably won’t be a result of the change in Greenfield, Johnson said, because several letter carriers are close to retirement so money would be saved locally through attrition.
While eight to 10 carriers will still deliver packages locally on Saturday, most will get the full weekend off work. That’s good news, he said, to a lot of the employees who are used to staggering their days off in order to deliver mail every Saturday.
“To have a Saturday off in the postal service is like Christmas,” he said.
Frances Upchurch, a letter carrier for 19 years, said she only recently began delivering mail on Saturdays. The change in August will be welcome because she can spend more time with family.
Still acknowledging the industry is unstable, Upchurch said she’s optimistic the USPS is taking a step in the right direction to cut costs.
“It is what it is; I’m thankful to have a job,” she said. “They’re not laying me off.”
Bob Holt, who delivers mail in northwestern Hancock County, works every other Saturday and gets a bump in pay because of it.
“It’ll be nice (to have Saturdays off) but it’s really going to cut into the paycheck,” Holt said.
Still, he wasn’t surprised with Wednesday’s announcement.
“They’ve been talking about it for years, but nothing’s happened,” Holt said.
Rural carriers like Holt may see a reduction in their take-home pay, Johnson acknowledged, because the pay is based on a route evaluation that includes a six-day schedule, mileage and volume.
But just how much a decrease in pay, Johnson said, will be negotiated by the National Association of Letter Carriers.
NALC President Frederic Rolando said the end of Saturday mail delivery is “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers,” particularly businesses, rural communities, the elderly, the disabled and others who depend on Saturday delivery.
He also pointed out that Congress for the past 30 years has mandated six-day delivery.
Over the past several years, the postal service has advocated shifting to a five-day delivery schedule for mail and packages, and it repeatedly but unsuccessfully has appealed to Congress to approve the move. An independent agency, the postal service gets no tax dollars for its day-to-day operations but is subject to Congressional control.
Congress may still try to block the idea of five-day delivery.
Republican Congressman Luke Messer is in favor of a bill that would give the USPS freedom to make the switch.
“I think the leadership of the post office is in the best position to determine which of these reforms is best, and it is without question that they need reform,” said Messer, who represents Hancock County. “Without question the post office is going to have to look at some tough choices that include things like closing post offices, reducing hours, eliminating Saturday delivery. These clearly are the kinds of things they’d have to consider, because it’s not OK to just continue to increase the cost of a stamp. It’s getting to the point where it’s unaffordable, especially to seniors.”
While five-day delivery has been talked about for years, so have cutbacks in other areas. Last year, the USPS announced some 13,000 rural post offices would see a reduction in hours.
Hours at Wilkinson’s post office will be reduced March 23. Sabrina Evans, postmaster in Knightstown, said the Wilkinson office will be open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, but closed for lunch 11 a.m. to noon. Saturday hours will remain 9 a.m. to noon, and the lobby will be converted to a 24-hour access, complete with a parcel locker for packages.
The post offices in Shirley, Charlottesville and Maxwell are also slated for a reduction in hours. That will happen in September 2014 if a full-time postmaster remains on site.
Maxwell Postmaster Naomi Carlton said she’s looking for postal jobs elsewhere. While she’d like to stay in Maxwell because she enjoys the people and it’s close to home, she doesn’t want to wait until September 2014.
“Then all the jobs will be gone,” she said.
Red ink has plagued the USPS for years. In November, it reported an annual loss of a record $15.9 billion for the last budget year. The losses were more than triple the $5.1 billion loss in the previous year.
The agency’s biggest problem was not due to reduced mail flow, but rather to the mounting mandatory costs for future retiree health benefits, which made up $11.1 billion of the losses. Congress made it mandatory in 2006 that the post office set aside money annually to cover future medical costs for retirees.
Still, the delivery of letters and other mail has declined with the increasing use of email and other Internet services. Johnson says the first-class letter is the post office’s money-maker, because machine sorting streamlines the delivery.
But the USPS has seen an increase in package delivery. Officials say packages have increased 14 percent since 2010. Johnson said the USPS is trying to adapt to the change.
The postal service has been changing ever since Benjamin Franklin was appointed first postmaster general in 1775. The Pony Express began in 1860, six-day delivery started in 1863, and airmail became the mode in 1918. Twice-a-day delivery was cut to one in 1950 to save money.
Greenfield resident John Merrill said he’s content with the USPS cutting Saturday delivery. While he regularly uses the mail service, he’d rather the USPS do something to get out of the red.
“I have no problems with it,” he said.
Joe Strodtman feels the same.
“It makes sense to me. Anything that comes on Saturday, I can get on Monday,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind if they went to alternate days for delivery if they want to reduce the cost. Birthday cards, junk mail; why does it matter?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.