United States postal workers take an oath to provide mail service to the country's citizens. But area members of the American Postal Workers Union feel that oath to provide superior customer service could be comprised if the U.S. Postal Service Hickory distribution facility in Conover is closed.
The USPS announced plans Feb. 9 to conduct a study about processing operations in the Hickory facility, which moved to Conover about 20 years ago after expansion. The Area Mail Processing (AMP) study takes into account a 20 percent decline in mail volume since 2007 and could ultimately result in consolidation of the facility's operations to the USPS's Greensboro processing and distribution center, according to the postal service.
Postal workers and area leaders say consolidation of the facility isn't the way to save money or increase customer satisfaction in the postal service.
For Douglas Woodward, APWU member and employee at the Hickory processing facility, closing the facility will jeopardize the postal service's No. 1 priority: customer service.
"It's not about jobs; it's about customer service," he said. "That's the whole point of having a facility in this area. It's a quicker turnaround for customers."
Consolidation of the Hickory facility into the Greensboro facility would require mail sent from within the 286 zip code to travel from western North Carolina to Greensboro for processing. Some mail-delivery areas were partially consolidated to Greensboro last year, which caused some postal customers to experience less than satisfactory results.
"Our council does not agree further consolidation of postal facilities will maintain adequate postal service to western North Carolina," said Conover Mayor Lee Moritz Jr. "Our city has experienced a significant increase in returned mail since the previous consolidation in early 2010. A total shut down of this facility would further reduce service levels and be a disservice to our entire region."
City Manager Donald Duncan Jr. said the same amount of undeliverable mail the city received before the 2010 consolidation — about three or four pieces — has now become a daily occurrence for the city. The city's water and sewer customers, some who have had the same address for 20 years, aren't getting their mail delivered. For Duncan and Moritz, the consolidation is to blame.
"Our assumption is that's the problem," Duncan said. "That's the only thing that's changed."
Woodward stressed that undeliverable mail or returned mail could contain something more important than a letter from a friend — such as a time-sensitive Social Security check or necessary medications. A delay in the delivery of those parcels could mean unnecessary late fees or missed medication doses.
Woodward and two other members of the APWU, Norman Allen and Joshua McCroan, said they provide a personalized service that would be complicated by postal workers in Greensboro who don't know local ins and outs of mail delivery in western North Carolina.
"You're getting a personalized service by having (workers) live here," McCroan said. "... We use the mail, too, and we see it."
The workers also said a consolidation, although an attempt to save the USPS money, doesn't take into account added costs from closing the facility, like transportation costs to haul Hickory and other cities' mail to Greensboro for processing.
Moreover, Moritz is also concerned about how the 200-employee facility consolidation will affect a region already plagued with a high unemployment rate.
"Our region has 200 families affected by this decision," Moritz said. "These are productive citizens providing essential services with pride and dedication. Conover voiced our concerns to Washington. Congressman (Patrick) McHenry is aware of our position for consideration of this postal facility and the critical services provided to our citizens."
The Hickory processing center has about 200 employees, but Woodward said those people aren't the only ones affected in the center closes. He estimated that most of those workers have a spouse and a family, who will be forced to look for other employment or move from the area to find another job.
Leaders and postal workers are organizing efforts to alert elected officials about the problems caused from the facility closure, if it were to happen. They're hoping that with enough attention, the USPS will take notice during its AMP study.
"As a result of the (mail) volume loss, we have more facilities, equipment and people than we need to process a declining volume of mail," said Russ Gardner, Greensboro district manager. "We have to reduce the size of our network, because we are no longer receiving enough revenue to sustain its costs. ... One way to do that is to consolidate operations where feasible. That is why we're doing this study."
Woodward said customer service is the USPS's No. 1 priority, and if USPS officials see how dissatisfied customers are with the potential closure, then it won't happen.
"Our biggest issue is service, customer service" Woodward said. "We're called the postal service for a reason."