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Upper Valley residents worried about mail sorting proposal

 Close up of a USPS mail box with the USPS store and parking in the background

A 10-year proposed plan from the United States Postal Service could affect how some Vermonters get their mail.

Currently, USPS uses many smaller distribution centers — like the one in White River Junction — to collect, sort and distribute mail.

The new plan shifts that work to larger distribution centers, like one nearly 150 miles away in Hartford, Connecticut.

But Vermont lawmakers, postal workers and Upper Valley residents have raised concerns that the move could put more strain on the state’s already struggling mail delivery system, and result in greater mail delays.

To learn more, Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch recently spoke with Valley News reporter Patrick Adrian, who's been following the story.This piece was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Well, before I ask you about the most recent developments from last week's public forum, what's the Postal Service's justification for potentially repurposing the White River Junction facility?

A light-skinned person with short, dark hair and facial hair wears a blue button-down, collared shirt.
James Patterson
Patrick Adrian writes for the Valley News and has been following the developments surrounding a proposal from the United States Postal Service that would move certain operations out of its White River Junction facility to one 200 miles away, in Hartford, CT.

Patrick Adrian: They're looking at at least 58 distribution centers nationwide; White River Junction is just one of those. They are also doing a study of the Burlington post office. They recently held a public forum, which is part of that process. They estimate that the savings by restructuring White River Junction would be up to $940,000 a year.

Mary Williams Engisch: And the White River Junction facility wouldn't go away — it would just be repurposed. Can you describe what it would be used for under this proposal?

Patrick Adrian: I think that's part of the concern — right now, nobody really knows. In my conversations with mail handlers, they don't believe that they're going to be significant staffing reductions. A restructuring could affect up to 20 positions, and most of these reductions are going to be through attrition. Some new positions may be created as part of this overall process. Some employees may be offered different positions within White River Junction, or they could be offered positions in Hartford, Connecticut or another postal facility. There are even questions that it might even improve some services. But [overall], people don't know yet how these changes are going to take place. That seems to cause anxiety among mail handlers as well as residents of the area.

Mary Williams Engisch: Last week, USPS held a public forum so Upper Valley residents, in particular, could share their perspectives about this proposal. Were you able to attend that? And if you were, how many folks showed up? What did they have to say about these proposed plans?

Patrick Adrian: I did, and I estimated at least 70 people. There were many mail handlers there. There were a lot of residents from the Upper Valley, which a region that is a combination of New Hampshire and Vermont communities surrounding the White River Junction post office. The attendees were predominantly against this change.

A lot of their concerns are just the uncertainty of how the plan will impact people. People really like the Postal Service, in general. They support their local post offices. A lot of the concerns that people feel is that the postmaster general, and even members of Congress, are more interested in cutting the costs, even if it undermines the services overall. Mail services has already been slowed by staffing shortages, and some of that gets attributed to a lack of federal resources to the post offices. They believe that this plan is only going to worsen the situation.

Mary Wiliams Engisch: You spoke to a USPS spokesperson who told you that our behaviors around mail delivery have changed a lot over the last 20 years. We don't have as much mail delivery and it's more package-based. How do those sorts of things play into the proposed changes?

Patrick Adrian: Steven Doherty, who is a USPS communication specialist for the region, has made this point — that the Postal Service has been affected greatly because of internet technology. We have email and online billing payment services. That has eliminated a lot of mail that people used to deliver because they can pay their bills and communicate online now. As a result, according to Doherty, the volume of letters has declined greatly over the last 20 years. At the same time, packages have increased greatly because of online shopping. This plan aims to modernize the postal delivery system and make it work more efficiently.

Mary Williams Engisch: You mentioned that you had a chance to talk with mail carriers as well. Can you tell me just more about what they're saying about this proposal?

Patrick Adrian: I was speaking to a mail handler at White River Junction who is a union representative to the Vermont state Legislature. He was pointing out that shipments typically arrive to the White River facility at 8:45 p.m. Their mail handlers try to have all that mail sorted by 2:30 a.m. for distribution. The goal is always to have the mail reach those local post offices by 8 a.m. The worry is that you're going to be adding at least four to six hours of travel time. In addition to the additional sorting that's going to happen in Connecticut — and we don't know how that's going to work — the one area that mail handlers keep bringing up is winter, where we have these storms that cause delays. Any delay due to storms could have an effect on mail services.

Mary Williams Engisch: Well, what's next, Patrick? I understand USPS is collecting public feedback until April 10.

Patrick Adrian: Yes, once the April 10 deadline for public feedback and a final report for White River Junction will be published — it will go to the postmaster general, and a decision will be made there.

USPS is still accepting written comments. There is a link on Survey Monkey where people may still send written comments. Finding it is very difficult. Right now, it can only be found on the USPS website. One of the complaints that people said at these public forums, not just at White River Junction but I believe in Burlington as well, is why didn't the Postal Service send people physical mailers with the information. They put everything online and didn't use their own resources to do it. That was a huge complaint, not only from the public, but I've heard that complaint several times from staff from congressional delegates. That decision did not get missed by the public.

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