A long line wasn’t all that greeted customers at the downtown post office at lunchtime Monday. For the fourth time, representatives of Grass Roots Organizing were in front of the Walnut Street building collecting signatures for a petition demanding a better post office.
It wasn’t a hard sell. Scores of customers, some carrying what appeared to be holiday packages, reached eagerly for the petition asking for more staff and funding to remodel the 38-year-old facility.
“The lines are huge,” said Nick Taylor, who came out of the post office and signed the petition. “I come expecting to stand in line.”
“We’ve hit a nerve,” GRO lead organizer Mary Hussman said, estimating that more than 300 signatures would be gathered by the end of the lunch hour Monday. “We’re not blaming the workers for the poor service; there is not enough staff.”
Hussman was also concerned about the condition of the building.
“It’s becoming shabbier and shabbier,” she said. “It’s an embarrassment to have this building in downtown.”
Burt St. John, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service’s Gateway District in St. Louis, said the situation in Columbia is not unusual. He said the Postal Service looks at several factors, including purchases, mail volume and number of customers using lobby services to determine the size of the work force.
“We are deliberate in the way we do this,” he said. “Anything we do, we have to do in line with contractual agreements with the labor union.”
He said mail volumes have generally tapered off in recent years, and for the first time more advertising than first-class mail is being sent, so staff are being moved around.
But St. John said a new sales and service associate had been hired and trained for the Columbia post office and that Hudson, the acting postmaster, was in the process of hiring two more people for the same kind of work.
The post office’s holiday hiring, however, isn’t likely to help the wait. Most are hired to do sorting work and not to staff the window.
As far as the remodeling, St. John said the government has placed a freeze on any work done on the facilities for the past three years unless there is an urgent need for repairs.
He said maintenance work on the Columbia post office is scheduled for next summer. Plans include exterior work on the building and the loading dock. Inside, there are plans to upgrade the appearance of the floors, walls and lighting in the lobby.
He added that the Postal Service would look into the complaints presented in GRO’s petition, including the organization’s demand that a longtime post office employee, Ellen Schlie, be transferred back to the downtown office.
Schlie, 47, an employee with the Postal Service for 18 years, worked at the window at the downtown post office for five years. In July, she was moved from that job to the processing distribution facility at the airport where she works the midnight shift. The move was the result of a job classification change at the national level that she fought, not the result of any complaint she made about the downtown post office.
“I moved out and the service went downhill,” she said. “It drove me crazy to see the service deteriorate.”
Around town and at the grocery store, her old customers regaled her with tales of terrible service and long waits. So Schlie looked into the situation internally and was told that everything was going according to plan in Columbia.
She said the postmaster’s hands are tied here — that it is a decision that came from St. Louis.
“With more and more duties, you can’t do a good job,” Schlie said.
No matter what, Schlie said the petition won’t win her old job back.
“But I hope something good comes out of this,” she said.
The plan is to continue the petition drive through December and then send it off to U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent, acting Columbia Postmaster Eddie Hudson and several other Postal Service employees.
“We want to collect at least 500 signatures,” Hussman said.
Meanwhile, other shipping businesses in Columbia are seeing some benefits.
“We get a lot of people because they don’t want to stand in line,” said Lisa Hollenbeck, owner of the Postal Annex on Forum Boulevard.
The Postal Annex offers “all the options” for shipping, including USPS, FedEx and UPS, Hollenbeck said.
The UPS store has four locations in Columbia. Kinko’s offers FedEx service at its downtown location, and Mail and More offers complete mail services in Columbia.