Postal Service Feels the Heat Over Consolidation Plans

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, August 3, 2006

The U.S. Postal Service is moving to consolidate postal facilities to help lower operating costs, but the plan is drawing opposition from a large postal union and scrutiny in Congress.

The American Postal Workers Union is putting on the full-court press to stop the move. It has launched a radio and television advertising campaign in four cities where consolidations are possible, including Cumberland, Md., and plans to expand the campaign to other cities. The union also has filed a complaint in federal court seeking to block the consolidations.

Some members of Congress are questioning the plan and have asked congressional analysts for a study. The Senate Appropriations Committee has urged the Postal Service to hold off on any consolidations contested by city governments until the analysts at the Government Accountability Office have completed their study.

Efforts to consolidate mail processing plants are sensitive, especially in an election year. No community likes to see postal jobs leave.

But the Postal Service is grappling with an uncertain economic future. The mailing of letters and other single-piece, stamped mail has dropped sharply as Americans have moved to the Internet to send e-mail, pay bills and file taxes.

Last year, the Postal Service said it would consolidate 10 mail processing plants. In most consolidations, the post office lobby remains open, but the labor-intensive sorting and delivery of individual pieces of first-class mail are moved to another plant and combined into the operations there. Officials later announced studies to see whether it would be feasible to make the same changes to 40 more plants.

But a list filed last month at the Postal Rate Commission, which reviews postal pricing proposals, showed that significantly more sites -- 139 -- were under consideration.

William Burrus , president of the APWU, said that many consolidations "will degrade service to the American public," and he faulted the Postal Service for keeping the complete list a secret.

"We are demanding that the public have input," Burrus said.

The union represents about 300,000 postal workers, and the consolidation plan could undermine the job stability of APWU members. Burrus said that large mailers want the Postal Service to cut costs, "and their costs are our wages."

Postal spokesman Gerald J. McKiernan said the possible 139 consolidations came from "a ballpark list that has been winnowed in half and may be again." He disputed suggestions that the Postal Service has been operating in secrecy, saying "public information programs" are held in cities "when we are coming near to making a decision on a facility."

McKiernan said the Postal Service will not move mail processing from one plant to another if the consolidation might slow delivery of first-class mail. "We don't do it," he said.

The Postal Service also has pledged that no postal jobs will be lost because of consolidations, he said. Some employees, however, may be reassigned or forced to drive longer distances to get to work.

Health Concerns at the IRS

Employees of the Internal Revenue Service at New Carrollton got a jolt this week when an e-mail told them that two employees had been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease and that one had died.

IRS spokesman Terry L. Lemons said yesterday that "health authorities have informed us that the employee died of other causes, not Legionnaires'."

The e-mail, sent Tuesday by John Dalrymple , deputy commissioner for operations and support, emphasized the IRS lacked information at that time about the cause of the death. It also said that preliminary tests at the New Carrollton Federal Building, which opened in 1996, had not turned up any link to the facility.

The disease is a lung infection usually caused by inhaling bacteria from air-conditioning or water-distribution systems.

"There is no evidence so far connecting the building to the illness, but we are aggressively pursuing additional testing and analysis," Lemons said. "We are working with federal and local health officials to do everything we can to ensure that the work environment remains safe." More than 3,000 people work in the building each weekday.

Lemons said the IRS has not been able to obtain details about the cases because of patient privacy rules. Dalrymple's e-mail did not identify the workers but said the second employee "is expected to make a full recovery."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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