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Falling numbers are adding up Problems plaguing Postal Service put more pressure on bottom line

These are difficult times for the 7,574 people who sort and deliver mail in Western New York.

Bone-chilling temperatures, icy sidewalks and deep snowbanks are just part of the problem.

Other challenges facing the U.S. Postal Service -- both nationally and locally -- are far more severe.

More people are using the Internet to pay bills and stay in touch with friends, so the volume of mail keeps dropping. The regional postal district handled 76 million fewer pieces of mail last year than it did in 2007 about a 5.4 percent drop.

Nationwide, the Postal Service says it is in an "acute financial crisis," with losses of $2.8 billion last year and bigger losses expected this year.

Several measures are under way or are under study to save money.

*Under consideration is cutting mail delivery to five days each week, instead of six.

*The number of blue collection boxes has been decreased in recent years, and more boxes may be eliminated in the future, meaning postal customers will have fewer places to drop off their mail. There are currently about 3,300 boxes in Western New York.

*Managers are closely examining the routes and workloads of individual carriers, with an eye toward consolidating routes and ultimately cutting jobs.

*For this year, at least, salaries of postal officers and executives have been frozen at 2008 levels.

*No layoffs have been threatened, but jobs are being cut by attrition as people retire. About 3 percent of the region's postal jobs are being cut each year. Voluntary early retirement regulations have been relaxed, making it easier for workers to retire before age 55.

"Understanding that our old business model would be unsustainable in a new, wired world, the Postal Service embarked on a journey of transformational change," U.S. Postmaster General John E. Potter recently told a U.S. Senate subcommittee. "The velocity of that change has increased every year as we continue to test the limits of what is possible."

But some of the change is causing friction between postal workers and the managers who try to encourage, push and prod them into maximum efficiency.

In the past week, two Cheektowaga postal carriers were suspended and ordered off the job. Union officials said one of the carriers was suspended because a manager "spied" on him and determined he wasn't walking fast enough while delivering mail.

The other carrier was suspended after getting into a workplace argument with a superior, the union said.

>Rising tensions

"This is the worst I've seen things in a long time," said Robert J. McLennan, president of the Buffalo branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers. "Many of our carriers hate coming into work every day, because they have to walk on the snow and ice, and also have to fight with management."

McLennan said many managers have made unreasonable requests of mail carriers this winter, telling them to save time by walking across lawns covered with deep snow rather than using sidewalks.

"Mail volume is down. Managers are trying to cut costs and maximize every carrier's route. Everybody's under a magnifying glass," said Karen L. Mazurkiewicz, Western New York communications coordinator for the Postal Service.

Mazurkiewicz said she could not comment on specific personnel matters or suspensions, but she did acknowledge some problems.

"The stress and tension are out there," she said. "I'm not going to try to ignore it."

Mazurkiewicz noted that the Postal Service does not receive tax dollars and that its money comes entirely from what users pay for postage.

And like many other businesses, the Postal Service is hammered by the Internet. Instead of paying 41 cents for a stamp to mail a letter or bill payment, modern consumers can use the Internet to send e-mails or pay bills free.

>Improving productivity

Aside from its role in delivering the daily mail, the Postal Service affects the region's economy in other ways. It is one of Western New York's biggest employers, with about $104 million paid out in annual salaries and benefits. Workers spend much of that money in the region.

On the local level, efforts to improve productivity have created some hard feelings between postal managers and workers.

"Managers are under pressure to increase productivity, and they put all that pressure on our carriers," said McLennan, whose union represents 1,500 letter carriers.

Some managers have gone out for days with individual carriers, watching and taking notes on their every move, including how fast the carrier walks, how much time the carrier takes for lunch, and how much time the carrier spends talking to customers, McLennan said.

"They're constantly pushing our people to the limit," McLennan said. "A carrier was suspended in Cheektowaga last week because his supervisor hid in a parked car and counted how many steps he was taking. The carrier was told he was suspended because he was walking 80 paces a minute, instead of 100.

"I've had management people tell me that it should take no more time to deliver mail in the snow than it takes in good weather. Our people have been told to walk across people's lawns, even if there are big snowbanks. They're told to make a path past the snowbanks."

Managers are pushing hard to find ways to improve efficiency, Mazurkiewicz said, but she said managers do not force carriers to walk on lawns covered with deep snow.

"We encourage our carriers to take every available shortcut for efficiency purposes, as long as it does not jeopardize safety," she said. "If it is unsafe to walk across a lawn because of weather or other conditions . . . it is within [a carrier's] discretion to alter delivery until the condition is corrected."

Potter said the Postal Service has taken some extreme actions in recent years because the situation is so serious.

The number of pieces of mail dropped by 9 billion last year -- a 4.5 percent decrease -- and a larger decrease is forecast for this year, he said.

>'Acute financial crisis'

"Simply put, the Postal Service is in acute financial crisis," he said. "[Mail volume] is falling faster and faster, outpacing the speed at which we can adjust operations. No one knows at what point mail volume will bottom out."

That decrease and the huge expense of worker and retiree health benefits are major problems for the Postal Service, Potter told senators. Last year, retiree health benefit costs came to $7.4 billion, he said.

Potter asked the Senate to allow the Postal Service to draw $1.8 billion from its $32 billion trust fund for future health benefits, instead of using operating funds.

Since 2002, the Postal Service has been engaged in a wide-ranging effort to improve the efficiency of all its operations, Potter said. The work force has been reduced by 120,000 jobs, and "strong productivity gains" saved 50 million work hours last year alone.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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