Protests continue in merger threat

Hickory mail processing center workers have one question in mind for their federal bosses — how can closing the Conover facility be a good decision?

"How's it going to work?" asked Katie Racine, postal clerk at the processing center.

Racine said if the U.S. Postal Service closes the processing center located in Conover and moves everything to Greensboro operations, its impossible to have mail delivered on time.

"How is it going to get back in the same amount of time (as it is now)," Racine said. "It's physically impossible, to our beliefs."

With the continued increase in gas prices, Racine said it's going to be hard to save money coming from the 286 zip-code region, going to Greensboro and back to the 286 region again, which includes 82 postal offices.

On Feb. 9, Hickory Processing and Distribution Facility employees were told the postal service was conducting a feasibility study to determine if efficiency can be increased by consolidating mail processing operations in Conover with those in the Greensboro facility.

Despite part of the operations already being moved to Greensboro and an increase in complaints from residents and business owners in the 286 region, the Hickory center continued its job by meeting required goals.

On April 28, Hickory processing center supervisor Connie Setzer gave an update on the progress of the facility and thanked employees for their success.

"A crucial aspect of our business that we can do for our customers is dispatching our mail on time," Setzer said in a letter to employees.

"When we dispatch on time, our carriers can deliver on time and collection mail can be brought into the plants on time. (The Hickory Processing and Distribution Facility's) dispatch on time percentage is 98.5."

Setzer continued to explain that the Hickory facility "continues to provide some of the best service in the country."

Since the USPS started moving mail to Greensboro from the Hickory facility, mail is delayed, according to numerous government officials and business owners.

The change has "added days" to delivery times, Racine said.

The people speak

To stop the mail from going to Greensboro before being delivered in a 286 zip code address, many people were stopping at the Conover Post Office on Monday to sign a petition to stop the transition. One of those signers was Nancy Hilderbran.

Hilderbran, an owner at Balls Creek Oil Co., said the mail delay has caused late checks at her business, which has put her company thousands of dollars behind on payments.

Another entity suffering from late checks is the city of Conover's utility department. Conover City Manager Donald Duncan Jr. said the department was averaging about five pieces of delayed mail a month.

That number has increased to more than 100 pieces of mail a month since the change to Greensboro.

"That's unacceptable," Duncan said. "Some of these folks have paid bills with us for years. The only thing that's changed is the way it's sent out — from here to Greensboro and all the way back. We are very disappointed in that."

Conover's expressing its concern with the USPS' decision to consolidate the facilities by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

Duncan said the city's attorney was directed by Conover City Council to file the request to see the complete feasibility study on the Hickory processing center. Duncan said the original report they received from an outside source was missing about 10 pages.

"We are not claiming that there is anything wrong going on," Duncan said. "We need all the information to make a logical argument."

That's exactly what Conover plans to do.

The USPS announced on April 29 that it will have a Town Hall meeting from 6-8:30 p.m. May 17 at the Hickory Arts and Science Center, 243 Third Ave. NE in Hickory.

A business standpoint

Racine said the USPS plans to present to the public, from a business standpoint, why the consolidation is the best for the distribution centers. According to a letter addressed to U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry from USPS District Manager and Lead Executive Russell Gardner, proposed annual savings in the draft feasibility study are about $5.7 million; a loss of about 40 jobs is expected and job reassignments will be made; collection box pick-up times will not change; retail services will remain the same; business mail acceptance will remain the same; a local postmark will be available for stamped First Class Mail; delivery of mail to residences and businesses will not change; and mailers who presort mail will receive postage discounts.

The letter, dated April 29, also said a presentation and study summary will be available at one week prior to the Town Hall meeting.

After the Town Hall meeting, Racine said the public has 15 days to comment and a decision will be made in 60 days after the comment period ends.

Why is it important?

"We feel that so many people depend on the mail service," said Racine.

"We've had a positive response from the public. They trust their postal worker."

The trust that the community has for postal workers is the same trust employees at the Hickory processing center hope to get from the USPS.

About 200 employees work at the Hickory facility. While some of those can transfer to Greensboro or other openings in places such as Alaska, Kansas and Oklahoma, past and present employees said their job means more than a paycheck.

"I worked with young people and people with families with young children," said Mark Herbert, of Catawba and retired postal worker at the Hickory facility. "They are established in the community.

(Relocating) is being forced on them. They might have to sell their house, and there's a lot of expense involved."

Racine's husband, Roger, said the threat of consolidation brings back fresh memories of when he lost his furniture business job when jobs went overseas to China.

"I don't want to see jobs go out of the area," Roger said.

Roger said he wants to hear from U.S. Sens. Kay Hagan and Richard Burr and McHenry and how they plan to help stop jobs from leaving Catawba and Caldwell counties, which is where most Hickory facility employees live. Roger said in the past, USPS considered consolidating the Asheville facility and the Rocky Mount plant on different occasions. He explained that the merger was stopped.

"If it's wrong for them, it's wrong for everybody," Roger said.

Employees plan to continue to fight against a consolidation. Another protest will be held at the Hickory Post Office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

"The main thing is keeping the mail processing in Hickory," Racine said, "which is the most efficient and reliable."

To make a public comment regarding the consolidation of the Hickory facility with the Greensboro operation, send a letter to: Consumer Affairs Manager, Greensboro District, PO Box 27499, Greensboro, NC 27498.