News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

December 11, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Processing postal change

Cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service closings leave Valley dealing with changes

You probably know one of those 10,026.

Ten-thousand and 26 people. Maybe a neighbor. A brother-in-law, father, mother, son, daughter or spouse. A parent of your child’s best friend. The deacon at your church. The familiar saleswoman at your favorite department store.

The Great Recession left us with lots of tough, lingering lessons. At the top of that list is the reality that jobs, even entire industries, are fleeting. By January 2010 — the 21st-century peak for unemployment in the Wabash Valley — a total of 10,026 people in the Terre Haute area were not working. Described another way, 12.6 percent of the local labor force in the Terre Haute metropolitan statistical area was jobless. Those are percentage points, though. Statistics. Numbers.

Those 10,026 represent real people who send their kids to school, mow their lawns, and bowl in Tuesday night leagues.

In this community, if any single time period in recent memory inspired a deeper empathy for others, that was probably it. We better understood what it means to lose a job and find another. A survey last year by the Pew Research Center summarized the hardships. Among people left jobless for six months or more in 2010, 38 percent felt they’d lost some self-respect, 24 percent sought professional counseling for depression, 46 percent saw family relationships fray, 43 percent lost contact with close friends, and 43 percent thought the recession would negatively affect their long-term career goals.

Seven in 10 changed careers, or considered doing so, pursued job retraining or additional education.

In this season of goodwill toward our fellow man, those struggles must be remembered. The uncertainty caused by those words — “downsizing,” “cutbacks,” “workforce reduction,” “layoffs” — has not disappeared since the economy’s low point nearly two years ago. Last week, the unsettling feeling re-emerged when the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service announced its intention to close 252 of its mail processing centers around the country, including the Terre Haute hub. If Terre Haute’s distribution workload shifts to centers in Evansville and Indianapolis, as planned, 36 jobs will be eliminated, the Postal Service said. American Postal Workers union officials think the jobs lost through the “consolidation” will actually total around 100.

The local cuts will save the USPS $7.05 million a year, though. The agency needs $20 billion worth of cuts by 2015 to be profitable, it says.

Just five years ago, its mail volume peaked at more than 200 billion pieces delivered. Now, thanks to Americans shifting to Internet communications and bill paying, the volume is down to 168 billion pieces handled this year. By 2020, the workload will be half the size it was in 2006. (Of course, shutting down distribution centers will also slow delivery by an extra day or two, and push even its core customers toward email and the web. But Congress, which retains control of the agency but no longer provides it any public funding, has done little to help.)

The letter carriers, sorters and clerks — including many long-time employees — are dealing with the changes.

“People don’t know whether to retire, as some can and some can’t,” Ann Barnes, president of the APW Local 618, told the Tribune-Star. “[USPS officials] are telling us that we will all still have jobs, just not necessarily doing what we are doing now, but we don’t know if that means working a job 20 hours a week or 10 hours a week. We don’t know.”

With the Indiana unemployment rate still high at 9 percent, hundreds of Hoosiers are confronting circumstances similar to those faced by the postal workers. Many walk into the local WorkOne of Western Indiana office, and others just like it around the state, seeking guidance. “It’s stressful” for them, said Valerie Kroeger, Indiana Department of Workforce Development communications director. “People don’t want to tell their families. People don’t want to tell their neighbors.”

Instead, those family-and-friend connections are exactly what a displaced worker needs, and career counselors will emphasize that, Kroeger explained.

“We always tell people it’s intimidating to deal with this situation alone,” she said. “It’s best to reach out to your support system, whether that be your family or friends, or your faith-based support system.” Tips on new job opportunities often come through word of mouth. Loved ones can detect skills appropriate in other occupations.

Encouragement helps people facing a job or career change. WorkOne aims to encourage, Kroeger said.

“We try to help them rebuild that self-esteem by getting them back into the workforce,” she said.

That’s an important step. After all, when introduced to a stranger, their first question often is, “What do you do?” Jobs tend to identify us, and a layoff can rearrange that clarity.

“While work is undoubtedly an important means of financial security, work provides much more than that,” Teresa Cardador, assistant professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, told the Tribune-Star. “Therefore, the absence of work affects not just our financial well-being, but also our personal well-being. Others should understand that unemployment is likely to affect people not just in significant financial ways, but also in significant non-financial ways.”

Work provides not only a personal identity, but also a sense of contribution and purpose, and the ability to give, Cardador added.

It’s also a motivator. “Work propels us to pursue challenges, achieve goals and to overcome setbacks,” she stated Friday. “These all have an important impact on personal self-esteem.”

The holidays should be a reminder of the lessons of January 2010. Almost any job can indeed be fleeting, but support and care should not be so.

The postal workers are the folks who will bring Christmas cards to our mailboxes this month.

We should all remember that.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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