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Post Office problems irk workers; but officials say recent changes have improved service, ended bulk mail delays

By James Faulk The Times-Standard

EUREKA --April 17, 2005 - Three weeks ago, a handful of postal clerks paraded around the Eureka Main Post Office on Clark Street, waving signs claiming that they were understaffed and undermined. Complaints centered on recent staffing and other changes by Bay Area management, which the clerks said resulted in poorer service for local customers and plummeting morale for employees.

Postal officials, however, say the changes were necessary to make the Eureka operation more efficient and to help it handle the flow of mail. Delays for businesses and for customers who might use their bulk mail coupons and similar promotional deliveries were rampant only a few weeks ago. "What's basically happening is they're eliminating jobs by not rehiring people who have retired," said letter carrier Timothy Hafner.

A long-time postal employee who proudly claims the old school moniker of mailman, Hafner said management is not filling those positions in an effort to save cash. "They're cutting it to the bone and in my opinion there are not enough people to do the job that needs to be done."

Newly installed Postmaster Ed Stoner -- fresh from years of service in the Bay Area, most recently Sausalito -- said the changes were not meant to save money but to grease the wheels of the operation. He admitted recent attrition but said the spots were not filled because officials were not sure how those positions would fit into the changes management is making to improve efficiency. They've since committed to hiring three more mail handlers, and Stoner was conducting interviews for those jobs Thursday.

They have a plan to make things smoother, said Hafner, but it's a classic example of the square-peg-round-hole conundrum. The result is the current workers have to work extensive overtime, he said.

And critics say the new hires wont help where they're needed most, as a buffer to already over-taxed mail clerks who sort the mail for delivery.

Why the delays?

For a short time, to catch up with back-logged mail partly arising from the attrition, third class bulk mail was diverted for sorting in the Bay Area. That process, plus the backlog, led to some significant delays that, according to some reports, were as long as four weeks. Businesses reported late coupon fliers and other special deals that were time-sensitive.

Jo-Ann's Fabrics reported some of their promotional materials arrived late and some not at all. "It does have an impact because we had a three-day sale and we didn't do so well," said a management employee who didn't want to be identified. The same employee reported that progress has been made -- in recent weeks their mail has been delivered on time.

A Eureka resident reported similar delays. "The fliers I receive from the Army and Air Force exchange service continue to arrive as much as three weeks after the sales have expired and often more than a month after the date listed," said Robert Cohen.

Cohen, unlike many of the other people who have complained to the Times-Standard on this issue, reported problems with first class mail, as well. But the mail diversions to the Bay Area have since stopped, and other changes have been made to help eliminate delays.

What changes?

"What we did is designate certain areas in the building for different types of mail in the third class realm of things," Stoner, the postmaster, said. "We have certain areas staged for mail that will be sent to carrier, mail that will be hand-sorted, for time-dated material. In the past that didn't happen -- everything was commingled. We organized it better so everyone can walk up and say this has to go today and this has to go tomorrow."

But employees say seniority for certain employees has been upset and that people who've worked hard over many years now have to work split days off and deal with other hardships normally reserved for greenhorns. Others are working massive amounts of overtime, although the amount is a matter of debate. "Morale is completely shot," said Mike Hetticher, a customer service associate and representative for the United Postal Workers of America.

He said he worked 70 hours during a recent week -- some of which amounted to double-time pay -- but Stoner said no one has worked more than 60 hours in a week. Regardless, Hetticher agrees management has been moving people around to see if they can make the operation work better, but he has his doubts. "My honest opinion is I don't think it will work," said Hetticher. "But we've got to give them the opportunity to try."

Stoner admitted they had moved some jobs around and made changes to people's roles within the office, but all in the name of better service, he said. "You will have to realign some jobs to make mail run smoother." He also said that the post office is in the process of hiring more people to sort the mail and that the changes are still happening -- tweaking things is always a possibility to make the operation better. "It's a wait-and-see thing," Stoner said. "We've got to keep an open mind in this."

Hafner, however, was also skeptical of the changes. "They're robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said. "This is the worst I've seen it." One thing all sides agree on is that service is the top priority. "The thing we're all embarrassed about is the service," said Hafner. "A letter carrier doesn't want to deliver a flier that's a week and a half old. We're not asking for more money -- we're asking for enough people to do the job."

Stoner acknowledged that his employees are concerned -- as they should be -- about the level of service. "My employees want to do a good job for the customers in Eureka and the whole 955 area," he said. Hetticher said the employees are willing to see if the new system works -- but so far they "don't feel this has been thought out."

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