By Robert Channick, Becky Yerak
and Cheryl V. Jackson
ABOVE PHOTO: U.S. Postal Service employee Elmer Thomas, Jr. takes a package from a customer at the Dallas Main post office Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, in Dallas. Already mocked by some as “snail mail,” first-class U.S. mail will slow even more by next spring under plans by the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service to eliminate more than 250 processing centers. Nearly 30,000 workers would be laid off, too, as the post office struggles to respond to a shift to online communication and bill payments.
(AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, David Woo)
For years, getting a government job meant security, good pay and a pathway into the middle class for many Americans, especially African-Americans and other minorities.
But with government agencies at all levels forced to slash expenses in a bid to balance budgets that long-held promise is in danger of being broken.
The U.S. Postal Service’s announcement Monday that it plans to close 252 mail processing centers and trim 28,000 jobs to fend off possible bankruptcy is part of a growing trend of shrinking government employment opportunities. For its workforce, which is disproportionately composed of African Americans, the news means a lot more than the prospect of slower mail delivery.
“People have raised their kids with these jobs and bought homes in the black community,” said Adrian Peeple, 42, of South Holland, who began her career as a letter carrier at Chicago’s Wicker Park station in 1995. “It’ll be a huge impact if they started laying off or cutting back on people who’ve been working here for quite a bit of their lives.”
The proposed plan, which would go into effect next spring, would relax delivery standards for first-class mail, so that it would arrive within two to three business days, largely doing away with overnight delivery for stamped mail. The delivery delay would be a byproduct of the closure of more than half of the mail processing plants, a change the Postal Service announced in September.
USPS Chicago spokesman Mark Reynolds said the agency is studying closing its Irving Park Road processing plant by O’Hare International Airport, the Fox Valley plant in Aurora, and one in Gary, Ind. The Postal Service will decide which facilities to close early next year.
“We hope and anticipate there will be minimal customer impact,” Reynolds said. “All the work at those facilities will be absorbed by other plants in the area.”
On paper, the Postal Service plan makes fiscal sense, saving some $2.1 billion annually as the agency struggles to remain solvent in the digital age. But the move, and the likelihood of future government job cuts across the board, may not bode well for workers seeking a traditional pathway out of poverty and into the middle class.
Since the recession began in January 2008, government employment has declined by about 400,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Local government is at the epicenter of the decline, with everyone from teachers to waste haulers getting pink slips as municipalities grapple with declining tax revenues.
The Postal Service was the hardest hit among federal employers, declining from 756,000 to 612,000 during the same time, a loss of 144,000 positions, or 19 percent.
While the private sector has added more than 1.6 million jobs this year, government payrolls have shed 237,000 employees through November, with the Postal Service accounting for more than 11 percent of those public job cuts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
More Postal Service job cuts may be forthcoming as the agency seeks to trim its annual operating costs by $20 billion by 2015, according to officials. For African-Americans, who have been especially hard-hit by the recession — with an unemployment rate more than double that of whites — it may represent the end of an employment opportunity that dates back more than a century.
“The postal service … has been a very important employer of African Americans,” said Robert Zieger, emeritus professor of history at the University of Florida and author of “For Jobs and Freedom,” a book on race and labor. “As early as the World War I era, about 10 percent of all postal workers were African-American at a time when the vast majority of African-Americans lived in the South and worked in agriculture and domestic service.”
Historically, the representation of blacks in the Postal Service has far exceeded their representation in the overall U.S. workforce.
Black men accounted for 11.2 percent of career postal workers in 2002, compared with 5 percent for the overall workforce, according to a 2003 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office. And 10.1 percent of career postal workers are black women, who on average made up 6.3 percent of the overall workforce, according to the study. Blacks still make up 21 percent of the Postal Service’s workforce, a spokesman said Monday.
Blacks and other minorities have particularly thrived in the upper ranks of postal employees.
As of 2008, a third of the Postal Service’s senior executives were minorities, compared with 16 percent government-wide, according to congressional testimony by the service’s Office of Inspector General.
In October, shortly after the postal service warned that it planned to close or consolidate offices and facilities, U.S. Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., called for another study on the impact that the postal changes would have on unemployment in minority communities.
Also concerned about postal service consolidation and its impact on the black community is U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. The history of African-Americans being hired by the postal service dates back more than 145 years, he said.
“When no one else would hire former slaves, the Postal Service did so,” Rush said. “For that reason alone, the post office has been a significant block in the building of the black middle class in America.”
A second-generation postal worker, Diann Tiffith, 56, has been on the job for 23 years, working out of the Wicker Park station. A single mother of two, Tiffith said her job helped her buy a house in south suburban Dolton, where she raised her kids.
As a child, Tiffith used to dress up in her father’s uniform, an enthusiasm she passed on to her kids. Her daughter joined the fold four years ago as a part-time mail carrier in Chicago.
“I’d hoped this would be a career,” said Camica Tiffith, 36, a mother of four living in Calumet City. “But I know they’re closing a lot of stations.”