Rural post offices prepare for reduction of hours
A tiny post office sits in Pomona, Mo. It’s a very small, white plaster concrete building with a flagpole to the side.
Pomona is in a rural area in south central Missouri. This is one of the many post offices across the United States in an effort to save money by the US Postal Service.
“I think all of the smaller offices in this area—they’re all going to that, because, you know, there’s a lot of lag time,” says Anna Carnefix, the postmaster relief for the Pomona office.
And she’s right – scores of very small post offices in the rural Ozarks are reducing their hours.
Taneyville, Spokane, Niangua, Rockbridge, Walnut Grove, Washburn… the nationwide list is about 4,000 offices long. But, Carnefix says, in the Pomona office, there will be little impact on customers.
“Nothing is changing as far as what they can expect out of the post office other than the hours,” she says.
The U.S. Postal Service originally floated the idea of closing thousands of rural post offices to save money. But rural America and its representatives in Congress roared back prompting the USPS to unveil this new savings plan in May. Now, it’s sending out surveys and holding community town halls to get feedback.
Pomona’s post office had its town hall meeting a few weeks ago, Carnefix says. “We had a full house. This was stuffed. That room out there was full. We had a very good attendance of people.”
Most people were just relieved to hear it’s not shutting down, she says. On January 26, this post office will go from being open eight hours a weekday to four hours. It will be closed in the mornings.
Brian Conley, owner of Conley’s Kwik Stop just down the road, says he uses post office to mail coupons for his convenience store. “If it stayed open in the afternoon, that would be fine. But if it closed earlier, it would affect me,” he says.
And about a mile down the country highway is the home of Cleta Collins. She says the reduction of hours will be an inconvenience for her. It’s her job to mail the cards from her Sunday School class at the Pomona Christian Church.
“I buy all the stamps, and make sure they get mailed and all of that. So, if it’s shut down in the morning, that’s when I do most of my running around—in the early morning hours,” Collins says.
In the afternoons, when the post office will be open, Collins says she’s usually busy sewing or quilting with the Ladies Aide at her church. She says the postal service financial situation is on the minds of folks here.
“Most of the elderly ladies that I talk to, or help with a few of their chores and stuff, they’re afraid that it’s going to close the rural routes down, as far as them getting the mail at their homes. They’re afraid that they’ll have to go into West Plains for that,” she says.
The postal service is not looking to close rural routes at this time.
Collins says some people in Pomona use P.O. boxes instead of residential mailboxes because of mail and identity theft.
“It’s important so that the postal service cannot only maintain its presence in thousands of mostly rural communities nationwide, but that also we can look at saving some significant money going forward,” says Richard Watkins, spokesperson for the USPS based in Kansas City.
Watkins says the majority of post offices having to reduce their hours are in rural areas because they don’t get much traffic.
“We know how much revenue comes into our post offices. And that’s important, again, because we’re not tax supported, and we also know how many retail transactions are being made each day. And in some locations, we were, in effect, paying a postmaster to be ‘on call,’ if you will, to sell a handful of stamps each day,” Watkins says.
The USPS is giving these low-traffic communities four options: to keep their offices open with reduced hours, to close the offices but keep mail routes, to close the offices but use an alternative retail spot – like a grocery store, or to just close it and use another post office. Most communities, Watkins says, have chosen the first option.
The U.S. Postal Service is not tax supported, and Watkins says it wants to keep it so. But the way Americans send mail is ever changing, and the postal service is scrambling to adapt. Last year, about 35 percent of its retail revenue came from sources other than traditional post offices – like grocery and convenience stores, or online. This year, just a year later, that figure is closer to 40 percent.
As post offices reduce their hours, so, too, go the hours of many postal employees. Thousands of employees have accepted early retirement or financial incentive packages to leave the postal service early as part of the savings plan.
Anna Carnefix’s working hours will be reduced. But, she says, she is a relatively new employee, and she knew of the reduction plan coming into the job.
When the Post Office Structure Plan, or “POStPlan,” is fully implemented in September of 2014, the USPS says it expects to save about $500 million a year.
The U.S. Postal Service ended the 2012 fiscal year with a record net loss of $15.9 billion. That’s according to a release from the USPS. It’s asking Congress to waive its prefunded retirement benefits and to have more flexibility in running the postal operation.
This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.