The U.S. Postal Service is ending outgoing mail processing in its facilities in Wenatchee and Yakima, rerouting nearly all mail originating east of the Cascades to Spokane in a move union officials say will exacerbate delays and could actually increase costs as the agency faces intense scrutiny over changes implemented in the run-up to November’s election.
The Wenatchee processing center sorted its last outgoing mail Saturday and the Yakima plant will do the same Aug. 22, according to documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review and confirmed by union officials. All mail with the exception of “Express” parcels originating in those areas will instead be trucked to Spokane to be sorted. Processing of outgoing mail is also set to end in Tacoma, leaving Spokane and Seattle with the state’s only full processing and distribution centers.
“It will delay the mail for the Wenatchee area,” said Don Sneesby, president of Local 316 of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, explaining that local mail sent from one address to another in the area will now be trucked to Spokane to be sorted before making the more than two-hour trip back west.
Union leaders were first alerted to the change in a July 6 letter from Kenn Messenger, senior plant manager for the Postal Service’s Seattle district, which includes the entire state. In the letter, Messenger wrote that due to an “unprecedented” decline in the volume of letters and “flats” – like magazines and large envelopes – processing of that kind of mail would be consolidated in the state’s two largest plants by around Aug. 5.
But in an update sent Aug. 12, Messenger wrote that parcels, which have seen a sharp increase in volume during the pandemic fueled by home-bound shoppers, would also be rerouted from Yakima and Wenatchee to Spokane.
A USPS spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the operational changes and the reasons behind them.
Wanda Emmert, president of the Inland Empire Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents workers at the Spokane plant, said she was surprised to learn of that update. Despite being listed as a recipient on the Aug. 12 letter, she confirmed that she had not received it until The Spokesman-Review provided her with a copy.
Emmert said the Spokane facility is prepared to handle an influx of letters and flats, which are less labor intensive to sort, but with package volumes already at Christmas-like levels every day, adding to that total could strain a plant that already relies heavily on overtime.
“So much of the mail is handled by machines that we don’t really feel a crunch,” Emmert said. “But if we’re getting their parcels, too, that’s going to be a big impact. If we get their parcels, there will be more overtime.”
The changes come amid an organizational shakeup Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who took over the Postal Service in June, officially announced Aug. 7. The stated goal of the changes is to improve efficiency and cut costs, but Sneesby said history suggests the changes in Washington are unlikely to result in significant savings.
A 2018 report by the USPS inspector general’s office found that a previous wave of consolidations that closed facilities in Olympia, Everett and Pasco in 2012 resulted in just 5.6% of its expected cost savings, while productivity – measured by pieces of mail processed per hour – fell by 14%. The Postal Service projected that it would save $268 million in transportation costs, but instead they increased by more than $1 billion, or more than 15%.
Transportation costs are sure to rise, Sneesby said, and Messenger’s July 6 letter assured union leaders that “there will be no impacts at this time to the number of existing employees” at the Tacoma, Wenatchee or Yakima plants. Union contracts prevent layoffs and require the Postal Service to provide workers with new jobs in the area.
“Basically they’re just killing that office, and they have nowhere to go,” Emmert said. “You can’t force those people to go outside a 50-mile radius for employment.”
Elsewhere in the country, the USPS has reportedly restricted the use of overtime at DeJoy’s order, but Spokane Post Office Postmaster Earl Eisenrich said overtime has actually increased in the Spokane area, in part because of workers taking coronavirus-related sick leave.
“DeJoy absolutely is trying to reduce overtime,” Eisenrich said. “But nobody’s informed me that we don’t deliver every piece, every day.”
But union leaders say the changes in Washington will make it harder for postal workers to meet that commitment.
“What I expect to see is delays,” said Omar Gonzalez, western regional coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union. “I’m not saying postal workers aren’t resilient and we can’t get the job done. I’m just saying that when they put obstacles in front of us like that, it’s hard to meet the standards that we already have.”
“I don’t understand why they would be doing any of this at this particular time,” said Gonzalez. “You’ve got Christmas operations around the corner, you’ve got the election around the corner, you’ve got the pandemic. You’ve got all these things that factor in and you make these changes. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Aug. 22, 2020 to clarify that the proposed end of processing mail in Yakima, Wenatchee and Tacoma was for outgoing mail only.
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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