In a move that will shift 1,140 jobs out of Queens, the United States Postal Service has decided to close its processing and distribution center in Whitestone, citing a decline in mail volume and mounting debt.
The positions of some 865 employees — 40 managers, 397 clerks, 192 maintenance workers, and 236 mailhandlers — will be eliminated while the jobs of 275 others will be moved, according to the USPS.
Darlene Reid, a spokeswoman for the agency, said that it will make every effort possible to relocate every one of the Whitestone workers, and try to keep them in their present job elsewhere.
“I can guarantee you that not a single worker will be fired as a result of the closure of the plant,” Reid said. “We are going to do everything possible to help these people through this tough time.”
Queens mail will be transported 12 miles to be sorted at a plant in Brooklyn, producing an estimated annual savings of nearly $30.8 million. The plan is based on the idea of changing the one-day standard of delivery for first-class mail to two to three days, something that does not have to be approved by Congress to be implemented, according to Reid.
In December, the USPS filed with the Postal Regulatory Commission for an advisory opinion regarding the issue, but has not received a response yet. It has six months to do so, and the USPS is not obligated to follow its recommendation, Reid said.
The Postal Service does need, and is seeking, Congressional approval to cut Saturday mail delivery service, and do away with pre-funding 75 years worth of retirees’ health benefits 10 years in advance, which has put the agency $5.5 billion dollars in debt.
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx), who opposes the closure of the Whitestone plant, is a cosponsor of the USPS Pension Obligation Recalculation and Restoration Act, legislation that will free the Postal Service from pre-paying its pension obligations in an effort to alleviate some of its financial burden.
“Closing this facility and cutting services won’t get USPS out of the red, but it will hurt Queens families and businesses,” Crowley said in a prepared statement.
No further steps will be taken prior to May 15, in compliance with the Postal Service’s moratorium on closing or consolidating facilities. The delay was implemented in order to allow time for Congress and the agency to come up with different plans.
State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) blasted the Postal Service for announcing its decision when it did.
“Rather than take advantage of the time that has been bought for USPS by Congress in a recent moratorium on post office closures, USPS has decided to finalize their plans to shut down this facility,” Stavisky said in a prepared statement. “This is like governmental Jeopardy — the USPS has the answers before we’ve asked the questions.”
The Postal Service had also intended to shutter five stations in Queens that serve the public, but decided over the last several months against closing each one.
But there has been no such reprieve for the workers in Whitestone.
When Pecolia Franklin, of Springfield Gardens, got a job as a mail handler at the Whitestone plant 18 years ago, she never imagined that she might someday be forced to move or change positions — but that day may on the horizon.
On Feb. 22, the same day the USPS announced the closure of the Whitestone plant, management at that facility held a meeting with the employees there, and Franklin was one of them. She said the higher-ups were less than forthcoming with information, dodging questions and leaving many more confused about their future than ever.
“No one knows where we’re going,” Franklin said. “There are only certain spots available in Brooklyn. They said they would let us know in 90 days.”
Franklin added that management told the workers that they could be moved as far as 50 miles away, which she believes is unfair.
“We have been working there so hard for so long,” she said. “We’re like a family. Now, we might have to go to a new place with new people and it’s going to be like starting all over.”
Franklin said changing the first-class mail standard would be a big mistake and only serve to cause more financial damage to the already struggling USPS.
“People are going to be paying more for less,” she said. “If they approve it, it will be really sad.”
Steven Larkin, executive vice president of the Flushing branch of the American Postal Workers Union, who also attended the meeting, had similar concerns and was equally dismayed by what he considered management’s evasiveness on questions.
“They’re playing games is what they’re doing,” he said.
Larkin said they were told there are about 300 open positions at the Brooklyn plant where people could be moved. Others nearing retirement age may be able to do so early without penalty. Those changing jobs, going from mail handler to letter carrier, for example, would be required to take a test, and if they fail, they would be fired, Larkin said.
Reid, however, said that isn’t true, claiming that those changing positions would only need to prove that they have the required skill set. For a letter carrier position that means being able to lift 35 pounds, among other things.
Larkin, a longtime union representative, added that the USPS’ plan is “not logical” and believes that if the mail is sent to Brooklyn to be processed before returning to Queens, with all the traffic and logistics, there is no way it could be delivered in two to three days, it would be more like three to five days; and that would have a severe and negative impact on customers.
“Their answer is the postmaster is going to go ahead and do what he’s going to do,” Larkin said.