Postal Service cuts Saturdays

U.S. Postal Service officials will end Saturday letter delivery in six months under a plan to eliminate more than one in six mail-carrier positions and save an estimated $2 billion annually.

The shift, set to take effect in August, will preserve Saturday package deliveries but eliminate weekend letter and magazine deliveries. Jobs of city and rural carriers will be affected nationwide, officials said Wednesday.

“We’ve been having discussions for years, moving to five-day delivery,” Postal Service regional spokesman Tad Kelley said.

Ending Saturday delivery would put a sizable dent in the service’s multibillion-dollar annual deficit, in part by eliminating a sixth “swing” shift that allows carriers to work five-day weeks while providing six days of deliveries. The service will cut about 35,000 of its 200,000 carrier jobs nationwide in the coming months, Kelley said.

Kelley said none of those job cuts – including those almost certain to hit locally – will require layoffs.

By offering early retirement and voluntary incentives, the post office can cover vacancies without forcing any employees out, he said.

“[The 35,000 jobs] is a small pool, when you break it down state-by-state and region-by-region,” Kelley said. “This is something we’re experienced at.”

But union leaders, including Beth Mellott of Altoona-based American Postal Workers Union local 776, have disputed the plan. Mellott’s union, which represents postal maintenance workers and clerks but not carriers, recently took part in similar voluntary departures.

“I think there probably will be some sort of layoff,” Mellott said. Last month, the service managed to eliminate 25,000 clerical and maintenance jobs covering three unions, she said – making 35,000 more retirements from just one union hard to imagine.

For those who’ve worked at the Postal Service long enough to earn payouts but not long enough to retire fully, voluntary packages won’t be enough to make a permanent difference, she said.

“For a 10-year vet, you’re really between a rock and a hard place,” Mellott said. The Saturday cut was all local post office employees could talk about Wednesday, she said, even for those who won’t be directly affected.

The Duncansville mail processing center won’t face any job cuts, Mellott and Kelley said, in part because its Saturday activities were transferred to Johnstown last year amid earlier cost-saving measures.

But the recent processing center cuts mean the Duncansville site can’t serve as a refuge for mail carriers whose jobs will soon be made redundant, Mellott said.

Postal Service contracts prevent employees at a certain seniority level from layoffs or long-distance transfers. Officials from the National Association of Letter Carriers, which represents delivery workers, weren’t available to comment on contract details Wednesday evening.

In prepared statements, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe framed the Saturday cut as part of a financial necessity borne of declining letter service and increased demand for packages.

“The Postal Service is advancing an important new approach to delivery that reflects the strong growth of our package business and responds to the financial realities resulting from America’s changing mailing habits,” Donahoe said, according to The Associated Press. “We developed this approach by working with our customers to understand their delivery needs and by identifying creative ways to generate significant cost savings.”

The rise of online shopping, Kelley said, has made packages more important to consumers, with parcel deliveries increasing in recent years. The need for some Saturday service, including medicine for ill and elderly people, helped preserve weekend parcel service, he said.

Kelley said the change will help the service deal with an expensive federal requirement that it prefund retirees’ health benefits each year.

That requirement, passed by Congress in 2006, costs the service $5.5 billion each year.

Some opponents, including the National Association of Letter Carriers, have said the decision to end Saturday service overrides a congressional rule preserving six-day delivery.

But that rule expires in March, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, said in an email statement Wednesday.

“This is a common-sense reform that will save $2 billion annually and help prevent taxpayers from bailing out the postal service,” Shuster said. “However, Congress must still undertake comprehensive reforms to further cut costs and keep taxpayers from having to bail them out.”

The Postal Service operates under congressional rule but is not supported by taxpayer money.

“We have sought congressional approval over the last three to four years,” Kelley said. “We’re cash-strapped.”

Kelley said the service is undertaking ongoing cuts to save billions more dollars, including further processing-center consolidation and hour reductions at tiny local post offices.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.