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Rural postmasters face ‘life-changing’ decision

Jun. 8, 2012 - 12:35PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

For Postmaster Tony Sampson, the news struck like “a blindside shot.”

Under a cost-cutting plan unveiled last month, Sampson’s post office in tiny Reedsville, Ohio, is slated to have its customer service window hours slashed from eight to four; by late 2014, his full-time career position will be gone, converted to a part-time job.

And by July 2, Sampson, a 53-year-old single parent with two teenage children, must make a wrenching personal choice: Sign up for early retirement, sweetened by a $20,000 buyout, or hang on for now and take his chances later in the struggling local economy.

“I can’t afford to take retirement unless I would have another good job out there,” he said in a phone interview. But in an area with one of Ohio’s highest unemployment rates, he said, “there’s absolutely nothing.”

Others are in similar circumstances, he added.

“I’ve got postmasters calling me, bawling and squalling, actually throwing up,” Sampson said. “They haven’t slept for a week.”

In all, the U.S. Postal Service could reduce hours at 13,000 post offices nationwide — most of them in rural areas — and replace thousands of full-time postmasters with part-timers in a bid to save a half-billion dollars a year. Although the service cuts could start this fall, the jobs of all full-time postmasters in those offices are protected through September 2014. After that, however, they risk layoffs,

“A lot of people are still trying to absorb it,” said Daniel Jeffers, a Maryland postmaster who sits on the executive board of the National Association of Postmasters of the United States, or NAPUS, one of two professional organizations for postmasters.

“It’s life-changing,” he said.

More than 21,000 career postmasters, excluding those in the Postal Career Executive Service, are eligible for the buyouts. But although the Postal Service last week extended the sign-up deadline by 10 days, would-be applicants still have only until July 2 to make a decision. Those accepting buyouts must agree to leave their jobs by the end of July, but some may be required to stay as late as September, depending on the agency’s needs.

“I’m still thinking really hard about it,” said MaryAnn Dyke at the Clam Gulch, Alaska, post office, also by phone. Asked what factors are in play, Dyke responded, “Money, my dear.”

“There are a lot of different angles to look at,” said a postmaster at a rural Colorado post office who is still weighing a decision and asked that her name not be used. In her case, a big issue is that her Postal Service pay supplements a family farming and ranching business that is suffering from a prolonged dry spell.

“If we weren’t in a drought, that might be a little easier decision to make,” she said.

Of the nation’s almost 32,000 post offices, about 80 percent lose money, according the Postal Service, which bled $6.5 billion in red ink between October and March as the Internet continued to drain away business.

USPS leaders came up with the new strategy after their original plan to close outright up to 3,700 post offices nationwide encountered fierce resistance both from Congress and affected communities. Legislation passed by the Senate in April, for example, would put a one-year ban on closing any rural post offices over local opposition.

“We think we ended up with a win-win here for our rural communities, plus, at the same time, were able to take the necessary costs out of the Postal Service,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said last month.

Because it avoids wholesale post office closings, the new strategy also appears to have placated lawmakers. But it will cut much more deeply into the ranks of postmasters, with some 12,500 full-time jobs set to disappear, according to a USPS spokeswoman. While there are some 1,600 vacant positions, competition for those jobs is stiff, Sampson said, with the nearest one currently about an hour’s drive away.

After 24 years with the Postal Service, Sampson said, his salary is around $58,000. Should he take early retirement, his pension would cover only his monthly mortgage payment. It’s not what he expected when he joined the Postal Service. Then, he said, he planned to retire “on my terms.”

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