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Best of Jeff Ward: Our Local Post Offices Aren't Delivering

Apparently competition doesn't scare some folks.

  • Editor's note: The cost of a postage stamp is going up to 45 cents come Jan. 22, so we thought we'd present this "Best of Jeff" re-run, even though it ran pretty recently, on Nov. 30.

 

Did I hear that right? Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is condoning private sector competition for some of those coveted and still patronage-driven city jobs? I’m guessin’ Richard J. Daley is doing 3000 RPMs in his Holy Sepulchre Cemetery plot.

Citing that cities like LA manage to collect recycling for $100 less than Chicago’s $220 per ton, first, Emanuel opened that Blue Bag program to outside bidders. Then he divided the city up into three sectors and, as we speak, Waste Management, Midwest Metal Management and Chicago city workers are battling it out in the final stage of this recycling contract competition.

Those second city workers went from indifferent to eager in two seconds flat. They even told their bosses, “We’re going to win this … This is ours!” Ain’t it amazing to see the kind of attitude adjustment that can occur when your job is at stake.

But while many public-sector workers are showing the rest of us they can rise to the challenge, when the challenge isn’t as readily apparent, it seems to be another story.

Take the Post Office. Facing digitally induced obsolescence and folks like FedEx who do it better, this hallowed 236-year institution is staring down a possible September 2012 final shutdown. But instead of displaying that Chicago kind of chutzpah, it’s gotten to the point where I dread darkening the door of any of our local postal facilities.

Before we continue, for the record, let me say that up to this point the Geneva and LaFox mailing centers have been exemplary. Despite being a one-woman, one-window show, Postmaster Betty McKee makes LaFox run like a well-oiled machine and, prior to cutbacks and staff reorganizations, Geneva’s Post Office was one of the best around.

But St. Charles, Batavia and the others? It’s like looking off the edge of a precipice.

En route to one of my tri-weekly shipping rounds, I coincidentally found myself in close proximity to the Randall Road Batavia Post Office. Figuring it was 3 p.m. and I only had one package, against my better judgment, I made that right turn onto Mill Street.

And sure enough, as two of us stood there, one window clerk was busy taking a personal call (we could hear the conversation) while the other was doing her best to fulfill the discriminating tastes of an avid stamp collector.

Five minutes of that same song-and-dance later, with seven customers waiting in line, a third clerk came out, looked at the line, turned around, and disappeared through a back door never to be seen again.

Fast forward five more minutes and, with the philatelist finally on his way, the now dozen potential patrons finally harbored some hope of making it home by dinner. As I fled the facility, our chatty clerk continued the conversation.

Because a similar scenario plays itself out almost as often as not, I will not set foot in that Batavia Post Office again. I’d rather just drive out to LaFox.

But as bad as they can be, St. Charles is even worse.

After celebrating an unseasonably warm November Saturday with a glorious Great Western Trail morning run, allowing convenience to trump past experience one more time, I popped into their Route 64 facility.

And once again, the lone Saturday-morning clerk was attempting to redress the unfortunate aftermath of a patron’s downed mailbox, but instead of seeking a supervisor’s assistance, she simply disappeared for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the four of us in the queue could see the remaining staff laughing together behind the window area as the line quickly grew to double digits.

When the clerk returned with an insufficient answer, she disappeared again. After five more minutes and finally out of patience, I approached the vacant window and in a firm, but polite voice asked, “Would you please get someone up here to wait on customers?”

Only then did a supervisor intent on helping customers with package notifications appear. Then the clerk returned to have the mailbox-less woman fill out a form that she filled out 15 minutes earlier. And that’s the last time I’ll set foot in that new building.

And Geneva’s in danger of going down that same drain, too. Due to staff realignment, they frequently have only one open window and most of the crack staff has been transferred to other facilities.

My business used to do $30,000 a year in Priority Mail shipping, but as alternatives like Fulfillment By Amazon appeared and the Post Office raised rates while ignoring customer service, we moved on. And we certainly aren’t the only ones.

Considering the kind of competition that might lead to their eventual demise staring them in the face, you’d think postal employees, like those resilient blue bag workers, would make every effort to rise to the occasion.

But that’s just not the case. It’s bad enough they’re forced to sell every patron every service they offer, but having to deal with that kind of apathy is mind boggling.

Whatever temporary relief the federal government might offer to stave off a September shutdown will only temporarily forestall this hastening death spiral. It’s just another example of what can happen when that public sector entitlement mentality becomes chronic.

Tom Konopacki November 30, 2011 at 02:46 PM
That's why I always use the automated kiosk in the lobby of the Batavia post office to send small packages and buy stamps - it's easy to use and I can be on my way in minutes. If my parcels are too large, then I take them to Services Etc on the corner of Randall & Wilson. Friendly, personal, service and they can ship USPS, FedEx or UPS. As a locally owned independent business, they know how to take care of their customers.
Jeff Ward November 30, 2011 at 03:11 PM
Tom, Those are both excellent suggestions. Thanks! Jeff
Terry Flanagan November 30, 2011 at 05:28 PM
Things aren't any better in the Florida post office we visited either. One patron was ringing a bell and pounding on a door adorned with a sign that said "Ring for Servce". He may still be there. As the line got longer the pace of the clerks seemed to slow down even below the already glacial pace it had been when we entered. I wondered if the building caught on fire if any post office employees would make it out alive. When we left, the the janitor was mopping up a spot in the vestibule where someone had urinated he told us, Apparently someone else didn't think much of the post office service either.
Rick Nagel (Editor) November 30, 2011 at 08:39 PM
It's interesting to see the (relatively few) number of comments. Do you think that's because comments are not so prominent on the home page?
Lou Pierce November 30, 2011 at 11:04 PM
How many of your readers know these three things about the Post Office? 1. The United States Postal Service ("USPS") is an INDEPENDENT agency of the US government responsible for providing postal service in the USA. The USPS has NOT DIRECTLY RECEIVED TAXPAYER-DOLLARS since the early 1980s with a couple of minor exceptions; 2. If you send a letter/package by a private service (e.g., FedEx, UPS, etc.), and the addressee is located in many underpopulated parts of America, such as Alaska, the private service will pay the postage necessary to have the USPS deliver it for them, since the USPS is required by law to serve ALL customers in the United States, with uniform prices and quality of service; and 3. The USPS would NOT be running a deficit at the moment if a federal regulation had not been instituted in 2007 requiring them to pre-fund retiree health benefits by approximately $5.5 billion per year to make up a deficit in that fund within a very short time. No other entity in the federal bureaucracy must abide by a similar rule. The Postmaster General has said there is a direct correlation between the budget woes of the USPS and the institution of the rule on retirement health benefits. None of this speaks to the issue of the inept/bad/surly counter service mentioned in the Jeff Ward's article and previous comments, but all are important issues.
stmarkschurch December 28, 2011 at 04:15 PM
I have always found the staff at the St. Charles East and Geneva post offices to be courteous, friendly, and helpful. The only times I have ever had a long wait at the East St. Charles counter has been a few days before Christmas or just before tax day. And what else would one expect on those days? I have NEVER encountered ineptness or poor attitude at either of those post offices. Marla Taylor
John Walsh December 29, 2011 at 04:34 AM
Postal employees work harder for their money than Jeff Vorva. Recycling his pathetic old musings demonstrates his inability to produce current, relevant story content. In the Tri-Cities and suburban Chicago, we are spoiled. It's not until you live or visit fellow citizens in less populated towns in the US, that you appreciate the value of universal postal service.

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