By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — The shuttering of the Mankato mail-processing center hasn’t happened as quickly as the financially ailing U.S. Postal Service planned, but it’s still coming.
“The Postal Service’s dire financial condition requires us to accelerate the consolidation of approximately 55 area processing sites,” said Postal Service spokesman Pete Nowacki in a statement.
“... As part of this plan, originating mail (the canceling and initial sorting of mail) at the Mankato Processing and Distribution Facility will be consolidated into the Minneapolis Processing and Distribution Center at some time in 2013,” he wrote. “We have not set a final date for this move.”
The approximately 100 employees previously working at the facility on Summit Avenue on Mankato’s far-north side already have been pared to about 80 by attrition and early retirements in anticipation of the closing of the facility, said Paul Rodgers, president for the Mankato Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union.
The first part of the shutdown is anticipated to hit this summer — about a year after originally planned.
“What we’ve been told is sometime between June 1 and July 31,” Rodgers said. “... We got a few more months.”
That initial cost-cutting measure means that mail collected from post offices across southwestern and south-central Minnesota — all ZIP codes beginning with 560 and 561 — will go to Minneapolis to be sorted and sent on to each piece’s final destination.
“This is going to impact about 18 employees,” Rodgers said.
The facility’s larger operation is the sorting of mail coming in from other processing centers around the country and sending it on to the proper post offices in a region that stretches from Hills (just east of the South Dakota line) to Albert Lea to Waseca to Belle Plaine. That work is anticipated to be transferred to Minneapolis in just under a year.
“The Postal Service tells us we’re to plan for total consolidation by February of 2014,” he said.
The Postal Service will retain the large facility off of Third Avenue as a transportation hub and a collection point for business mail. About 32 jobs are expected to continue after February at the site, which had well over 100 employees as recently as five years ago, Rodgers said.
And the union jobs paid as much as $53,000 to a processing clerk at the top of the wage scale, according to the Postal Service.
The workers who will lose their current jobs should have the opportunity for continued Postal Service employment under union contracts.
“The Postal Service is supposed to make every effort that they can to find a job for those employees,” Rodgers said.
Along with offering early retirement incentives, the Postal Service can transfer workers to other openings as long as the new post is no more than 50 miles away. Finding other jobs for the workers in the downsizing organization isn’t always easy.
Rodgers said 15 workers from the Rochester mail-processing center, which closed in February, have not found a landing spot but continue to be paid for “doing tasks but not necessarily an assigned job.”
The Postal Service’s decision to end most operations at the Mankato facility left some shippers worried about a reduction in service quality and delivery times. While postal officials have promised that the impact will be minimal for most customers, Rodgers said workers wonder.
“There are a lot of unknowns right now and it’s a very fluid thing,” he said.
Nowacki said the Postal Service has little choice but to cut expenses wherever possible.
“As first-class mail declines, we must continue to improve operational efficiencies and reduce costs by making better use of space, staffing, equipment and transportation in processing the nation’s mail,” he said.
Rodgers said Americans concerned about continued reductions in service should contact Congress, where legislation is stalled that would ease a 2006 law forcing the Postal Service to pre-fund 75 years worth of retiree health care benefits.
The law, passed by Congress when the Postal Service was especially profitable, straps it with a burden that no other public agency or private company must bear, according to postal worker unions.