POStPlan implementation: The surveys go out, the trouble begins

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Last week the Postal Service began notifying citizens across the country that their post office would either have its hours reduced or be closed completely.  Reports from the field indicate that the Postal Service will not be rolling out POStPlan in a very gradual way.  It appears that any post office with a postmaster vacancy will be reviewed immediately, and there are several thousand post offices in this category.

The Postal Service has said that it will take two years to implement POStPlan completely and that the first post offices to be reviewed would be those without a postmaster.  There were about 3,000 post offices on the POStPlan list with a postmaster vacancy (a list is here).  Some unknown number — perhaps as many as half — of the 4,000 post offices where the postmaster recently retired are now also without a postmaster.  There are, in addition, perhaps three thousand post offices where the postmaster is leaving to take one of the new postmaster positions that has opened up or a non-postmaster position that’s more secure. 

That adds up to about eight thousand post offices — well over half the POStPlan list of 13,000 — that could be reviewed very soon.  (This post breaks down the numbers in more detail.)  

Many patrons have already received a letter describing the plan and the options under consideration, along with a survey in which they can express their preferences.  The letter also indicates that a meeting will soon be scheduled where people can discuss the options with postal officials. 

The implementation plan involves scheduling the community meeting and then sending out the surveys about six weeks before the meeting.  Customers are asked to return the survey within two weeks, which will give the Postal Service about a month to tabulate the results.  At the meeting, the results of the survey will be shared and discussed, and those customers who haven’t filled out a survey can do so at the meeting. 

One week later, the Postal Service will announce its decision about the future of the post office.  If the decision is to reduce the hours rather than discontinue the office, the new hours of operation will be posted, and they’ll take effect 30 days later (or the beginning of the pay period after that).  The surveys are being sent out now, the meetings will begin in October, and the reduced hours will take effect starting in November.

In its advisory opinion on POStPlan, the PRC reviewed what it had been told by the Postal Service and its witness, Jeffrey Day, about how POStPlan would be implemented.  From what we’re hearing so far, things aren’t going quite the way the Postal Service said they would.

 

Who’s being notified and who’s not?

One of the problems seems to be that not everyone is being mailed a survey.  The PRC’s advisory opinion on POStPlan made it very clear that the Commission was under the impression that all customers would receive one.  The advisory opinion states clearly, “All customers of each POStPlan post office will be mailed a survey on which they can indicate whether they prefer reduced hours or discontinuance.” 

In another passage in the opinion, the Commission states that the Postal Service will send surveys to “all addresses serviced by the POStPlan post office under consideration.”  Additional surveys would be made available to customers who request them at the retail counter, and a notice would be posted in the lobby explaining that the post office is being considered for review under the POStPlan.

According to the reports we’re getting, at some post offices surveys are being sent only to box holders and not to customers in the community who get home delivery.  If those customers don’t notice the sign in the lobby and don’t know to ask for a survey at the window, they may not have their voices heard.

It’s important that everyone who uses a particular post office have an opportunity to participate in the survey because the surveys are being used to decide whether or not the post office will remain open.  If the office ends up having the hours reduced, the survey also asks people their preferences about when the post office will be open. 

All customers, not just box holders, should have input into that decision.  In some cases, the box holders may represent just a minority of customers served by the post office.  All customers may not feel the same way, and it’s likely that box holders will have a different view of the question than those with home delivery. 

 

The meetings: At whose convenience?

Another issue that’s already come up is when and where the meetings will be held.  That was a big problem for the thousands of meetings that were held last year for the Retail Access Optimization Initiative, and one would have hoped that the problems would be avoided for POStPlan.  It appears, however, that some meetings are being scheduled during the workday, which makes it impossible for many people to attend. 

We’ve also heard that some meetings may be scheduled in post office lobbies, rather than a town hall, library, school, or some other public place.  Most post office lobbies in small towns are very small and can only hold a few people.  One Officer-in-Charge was told by a supervisor that the Postal Service wanted to hold the meeting in the lobby, even though it can only hold about three people.

 

The lesser of two evils (or four)

One of the issues raised in the PRC’s advisory opinion involved the wording on the survey.  The draft survey submitted to the PRC identified four options, the same as those discussed in the Postal Service’s Request for an Advisory Opinion and Mr. Day’s testimony: (1) reduce the hours at the post office; (2) close the post office and offer rural delivery to box holders; (3) close the post office and encourage box holders to get boxes at another post office; (4) close the post office and open a contract postal unit in the community.

The way the draft survey presented the options, however, it was not clear that three of the options involved closing the post office.  The PRC recommended that the ambiguity be avoided by telling customers there were really two options —reduced hours or close the post office — and if the post office were closed, then the other options, like rural delivery or a contract unit, would come into play. 

In the survey being sent to customers, the Postal Service continues to pose the question in terms of the four options rather than the two recommended by the PRC.  The Postal Service has not totally ignored the PRC’s suggestion, however.  The descriptions of the three alternatives to reduced hours each states that the post office would be studied for discontinuance.

The average customer who has not been following this story in the news, however, is still likely to be confused by the survey and letter, and there’s no contact person listed whom one might call with questions.  Such questions can be addressed at the community meeting — if you can attend — but by then the survey results will have already been tabulated.  You’ll be able to ask the person behind the window at the post office questions, but that person may be a postmaster relief who’s been on the job for a short period of time — no expert on POStPlan, that’s for sure.

By the way, if you have an idea for a fifth option, best keep it to yourself.  The email memo going around among postal employees says that the Postal Service will discard any surveys with other options written in.

 

The Village Post Office: Enhancement or replacement?

In its advisory opinion, the PRC had a lot to say about how the Village Post Office was being used in POStPlan.  The Postal Service’s initial presentation about the plan has the VPO listed as one of the four options, and it’s clear that the VPO would replace the post office.  

However, in his testimony before the PRC, Mr. Day explained that in many cases, the Postal Service would open a VPO even in communities where the post office’s hours were being reduced and the office wasn’t closing.  In those cases, the VPO would be an “enhancement” rather than a “replacement” for the post office, said Mr. Day.

The Commission recommended that the Postal Service clear up this contradiction, and it clearly favored the enhancement role rather than the replacement.

For some reason, the letter and survey being sent to customers do not even use the terminology Village Post Office.  The letter says that the Postal Service welcomes inquiries from those who might be interested in setting up a “contractor-operated postal retail unit.”  The letter contains the URL for the page on the USPS website about “USPS Everywhere,” and there’s a link on this page to an explanation of the Village Post Office. 

As for the role of the VPO — enhancement or replacement — the letter being sent to customers contains a passage that was not in the draft letter reviewed by the PRC.  The letter being sent out states, “Generally, these contractor-operated postal retail units will operate in combination with a community's Post Office. However, selection of the third option in the attached survey indicates a preference of your Post Office to be studied
for discontinuance with the establishment of a contractor-operated unit as a replacement for the Post Office.”

That passage apparently responds to the PRC’s recommendation that the Postal Service clarify the role of the VPO, but it’s a little confusing because it’s trying to have it both ways.  A contract unit is described as “generally” operating “in combination” with a regular post office, but if you pick the third option on the survey, you’re saying you prefer to have your post office replaced by a VPO. 

The letter being sent to customers makes one other key revision to the draft letter reviewed by the PRC.  The original indicated that the hours would be reduced at the post office “unless the community has a strong preference for discontinuing.”  The revised survey states, “unless the community has
a strong preference (more than 60 percent) for conducting a discontinuance study.”

The 60 percent came up during testimony presented by the Postal Service to the PRC, and the advisory opinion expressed concern about certain ambiguities in how that figure might be applied.  It’s possible, the PRC noted, that 20 percent of the respondents might choose each of the options associated with closing the post office, and that would add up to 60 percent electing discontinuance while 40 percent chose reduced hours.   “This raises the possibility," observed the Commission, "that a plurality of customers could select reduced window hours, yet the Postal Service would treat this as a strong preference for discontinuance.”

The letter to customers doesn’t address this ambiguity, so it’s still not clear how the Postal Service will be applying the results of the survey.  There's also another caveat.  The Postal Service has said that it won't depend entirely on the surveys and meetings in making its decisions.  There are also "operational needs" to consider, and that could mean just about anything.

 

Not on POStPlan: Hours reduced anyway

A few weeks ago, the Postal Service announced that it would be reducing the hours at the post office in Danville, Virginia, which is not on the POStPlan list.  We don’t know how widespread this practice is becoming, but in her concurring opinion for the POStPlan Advisory opinion, Chairman Goldway expressed the following concern:

“Finally, news reports indicate there are post offices, not identified as part of the POStPlan, whose retail hours are also being reduced.  It appears that the customer-friendly mechanisms by which the Postal Service will address most customer concerns in the POStPlan are not being applied in non-POStPlan service reduction decisions.  I believe the Postal Service should apply no less than the same procedures outlined in the POStPlan to other offices being considered for service hours’ reduction.  Further, the Postal Service should be consistent in using the selection criteria identified in POStPlan for selecting additional offices for service hours’ reduction. 

“In summary, without more information from the Postal Service and transparent reporting of its actions with regard to all post office hours of service reductions and closing decisions, I am concerned that, in addition to reducing the hours of approximately 13,000 post offices, the Postal Service will either close and/or reduce the hours of hundreds more.”

Last week, a news report indicated that yet another post office not part of POStPlan will have its hours reduced.  The post office in East Canton, Ohio, will have its hours cut in half, beginning on September 17.  We’ve also heard, though not seen a news report on it, that another post office in south Canton is having its hours reduced as well, and it’s not on POStPlan either.  (Update: This news report confirms that the North Industry branch in south Canton will have its hours reduced.)

Apparently, there was no survey or public meeting to discuss the changes with customers of the East Canton branch.  A Postal Service supervisor simply arrived at the post office one day in late August and gave the clerk a notice indicating that the hours would be reduced.  The new hours will be 8:30 a.m. to 12:00, and the office will not re-open after lunch, as it has been doing, for the 1:00 to 5:00 period.  Customers needing to mail something in the afternoon will need to travel over five miles to the nearest post office.  If you can’t make it to the post office in the morning to pick up a package or check your post office box, you’re out of luck — from what we’ve learned, access to boxes will be possible only during the hours the office is open.

 

Share your story

This week news reports — like this one about the post office in Cameron, South Carolina (photo at the top) — will begin appearing with stories about patrons receiving notice from the Postal Service about POStPlan and the prospect of reduced hours.  These reports will provide a better picture about what’s going on, but they will not tell the whole story, so we’re asking for your help.

Save the Post Office would like to gather stories about what’s going on out in the field.  Whether you’re a postal worker or a customer, send us a note and tell us what you’re seeing.  Just hit the contact link at the top.  We’ll keep all the names confidential, and we’ll check back with you for approval before publishing any specific details, like the name of the post office.  If you prefer a phone call, that can be arranged too.

Here’s the kind of information we’d like to hear about:

  • Who was notified?  Did the letters go to all retail customers or just post office box holders?
  • Was a notice posted on the office door?  When was it posted?
  • Were surveys available at the counter for those who asked?
  • When and where will the community meeting be held?  If it’s a small space, how many people can it hold?

If your post office’s hours are being reduced and it’s not on POStPlan, let us know the details about that too.

(Photo credits: Cameron, SC, post office; meeting about closing the post office in Blackburn, MO, under the RAOI; East Canton, OH, post office)

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