News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 2, 2014

Adapting to changes: U.S. post office ‘post plan’

TERRE HAUTE — As Denise Edwards chatted Friday with customer Lorena Nevins at the Prairieton Post Office, she reminded her customer about some recent changes.

“Now, I go to lunch at noon and don’t come back,” said Edwards, who has worked at the Prairieton postal facility since 1977.

In recent months, Edwards has seen some major changes. The rural post office used to be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Effective mid-November, hours of operation were reduced to four hours each day, 8 a.m. to noon, with Saturday hours continuing at 9 to 11 a.m.

Edwards’ boss used to be the Prairieton postmaster, but along with the changes, he has a different position with the postal service. Edwards remains with the title “postmaster relief,” and she reports to the Terre Haute post office.

She does what the postmaster did, but she’s part-time and receives no major benefits.

Edwards is not complaining. “I still enjoy what I do,” she said. “Four hours a day is better than zero.”

She is able to walk to work and the job “gets me out, up and over here,” she said, noting that she is “pushing 60 years” of age. Christmas did get a little hectic, though, she said.

On Friday, she waited on Nevins, who prefers going to the Prairieton Post Office rather than one closer to her home. Edwards orders the “pretty” stamps that Nevins wants, and the post office — just off Indiana 63 — is on Nevins’ way to Terre Haute.

Another reason Nevins stops there is Edwards. “I like to talk to her. She knows my son” and other family members, Nevins said. “It’s a little community. A lot of people know each other here.”

She’s not happy about the cutback in service window hours but realizes she’ll just have to stop before noon.

Also stopping to mail a bill was Rick Seaton, who doesn’t have a computer and pays bills the way he’s always done — through the post office. The cutback in hours “is not good for the employees, that’s for sure,” he said.

He’s laid off from construction work and said, “I know how they feel.”

But he also understands the dilemma of the U.S. Postal Service in having to cut costs to remain solvent. Without changes, “We might not even have a postal service system in time,” he said. And if that happened, “There’s a lot of us wouldn’t know what to do.”

He is happy that the lobby is now open 24 hours. “That makes a difference. So that’s good, but cutting their hours is bad,” Seaton said.

The changes at the rural post office are part of the USPS so-called cost-cutting “post plan,” in which rural post offices once targeted for closure instead are remaining open with reduced hours. Depending on the location, window hours have been reduced to six hours, four hours and two hours.

“We changed our strategy because of such an overwhelming response from our customers,” said Mary Dando, USPS spokeswoman for the Greater Indiana district.

The process calls for surveys to be distributed to those who live within the ZIP code affected, and public meetings also are conducted before changes take place.

Prairieton had its meeting at 5 p.m. Oct. 8 at the volunteer fire department. Seven people attended, Edwards said. Surveys were placed in post office boxes and a meeting notice was posted 30 days in advance; she also printed a few surveys and left them out at the Prairieton post office so other customers could see them.

By now, people are pretty much used to the changes, Edwards said. “It took them awhile, but they got used to it. They get all their mailing needs done by noon because they know I’m out of here by noon.”

While the lobby is open around the clock to give people access to their post office boxes, no stamps or other products can be purchased unless the service window is open.

“It’s something everyone has adjusted to,” Edwards said. “It has gone well.”

The “post plan” and reduced hours “is a strategy to save small post offices” yet still cut costs, Dando said.

Nationally, the reduced hours at smaller post offices are supposed to take effect by Oct. 1, although many in the Wabash Valley have already taken place. Once fully implemented, they will be reviewed annually, Dando said.

At the same time, the USPS is seeking local businesses or organizations to serve as contractor-operated postal retail units, called Village Post Offices (VPOs).

The VPO’s provide access to postal products and more convenient hours to the public at the same time rural post offices’ hours are reduced.  

On Monday, a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place for a new VPO at the Millers IGA in Clay City, where the post office is expected to reduce its hours of operation to six hours a day by October.

Clay City VPO hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and people can purchase stamps and priority flat rate packaging.

No date has been set for when the reduction of post office hours in Clay City will be implemented, nor has a public meeting date been set, postal officials said.

As rural post office operations are streamlined, there are — and will be — fewer postmasters. Once the changes are completed, Farmersburg postmaster Chad Risley will have administrative responsibility for eight other rural post offices.

Currently, he oversees Coalmont, Hymera, Shelburn and Fairbanks. Eventually, the list will include Clay City, Lewis, Pimento and Prairie Creek.

The rural postmasters have had time to prepare for the changes, Dando said. “This wasn’t done in a hurry … it has been over a two-year period,” Dando said.

If they choose to stay, their hours and pay are reduced. They also have opportunities to seek other positions — including higher-level positions — within the USPS. Those higher-level positions might require relocation or driving further distances than the employees want.

Some have been eligible for retirement.

These changes have occurred without layoffs, Dando said. “We have never laid off anyone.”

Reduced hours have already occurred at many Wabash Valley rural post offices in Vigo, Parke, Sullivan, Clay and Greene counties, according to a list provided by USPS.

In Bridgeton, implementation occurred in October, and hours are 9 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, with Saturday hours of 8:30 a.m. to noon. In Hymera, changes went into effect last Feb. 23 and window hours are 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Many lobbies are open 24 hours a day, and if the sites had Saturday hours, those have been maintained.

At Montezuma, a meeting took place Nov. 19 at the Montezuma Fire Department, and changes went into effect Jan. 11. The post office hours are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, Monday through Friday, with the window closing for lunch from 1 to 2 p.m.

Post offices at Pimento and Shepardsville also will see reduced hours of operation, but public meeting dates have not yet been set.

At Prairieton, Edwards says she is there for the long run.

She said she gets a lot of business from people “who would rather drive three or four miles out of their way and get what they need and get out” than go to a postal facility where they might have to stand in line.

She tries to accommodate her customers if they have special stamps that they want, whether Harry Potter or Valentine’s Day stamps.

While people were initially concerned about the changes, once they learned the lobby would be open 24/7, that alleviated much of the concern for those with post office boxes.

But Edwards is more than just a post office employee. People enjoy visiting with her and sharing their stories and their problems.

As the U.S. Postal Service continues to undergo major overhauls, “I still love my job,” she said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com

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