Under the plan announced Thursday, the agency would begin the consolidation process at 48 facilities this summer, and consolidate 140 in all through February. A second phase of consolidations, scheduled to begin in early 2014, would target another 89 facilities.
The latest announcement comes just over a week after USPS announced a plan that would likely keep thousands of local post offices open at shorter hours, and save about $500 million a year in total.
It also comes as the postal reform debate is in something of a holding pattern on Capitol Hill, with the Senate having passed a bill in April and the House yet to schedule floor time for its Republican proposal.
Dozens of senators had urged the Postal Service to hold off on any closures until Congress could finish its work overhauling postal operations. But with a moratorium on shutting down facilities ending May 15, Donahoe said the agency had to move forward to better match its processing network with its mail volume.
In recent months, more than a few lawmakers also have pushed to save processing centers in their states or districts, saying that closing those facilities would hamper constituents’ ability to receive medications and other crucial items.
Postal officials said Thursday that stretching out their plans to consolidate processing centers would make the adjustment easier for both customers and workers. The agency had proposed moving more quickly with its consolidation efforts last year, and originally targeted some 250 of its 461 processing centers for consolidation.
After starting on the 48 processing facilities this summer, USPS will take a break from its consolidation efforts the rest of the year as it deals with election and holiday mail.
“We believe this plan strikes the right balance,” said Megan Brennan, the Postal Service’s chief operating officer.
Still, the outlined changes would lead to fewer pieces of mail being delivered the next day. Currently, postal officials say 42 percent of first-class mail is received overnight, a figure that would drop to roughly one in three after the first wave of changes. A second round of consolidations would likely further limit overnight delivery.
The first phase of the proposal would also reduce the USPS payroll by 13,000 employees, and the agency could employ as many as 28,000 fewer workers once the plan is fully implemented — reductions that Brennan said could be achieved through attrition and by offering retirement incentives.
But even with those savings, Donahoe also noted Thursday that lawmakers needed to quickly finish their work on postal reform, asking for a bill to get to the president’s desk this summer.
Even if the processing center plan were to be fully implemented, the $2.1 billion in annual savings amounts to less than 10 percent of the $22.5 billion in annual cuts that USPS is seeking by 2016.
The postmaster general has said that Congress needs to allow USPS to move swiftly to scrap Saturday delivery, and to lessen the pain of a required prepayment for retiree healthcare. The agency has declared that it will default on the $11 billion in prepayments it currently owes before the end of September unless Congress acts.
But lawmakers still appear to have broad gaps to bridge on postal reform, with key members in both chambers using the Postal Service’s Thursday announcement to criticize the other side.
USPS has said that it supports a provision in the Senate bill passed last month that would make the healthcare prepayments more manageable.
A House GOP proposal would allow the agency to move more quickly to five-day delivery, and postal officials also say that the Senate’s overall plan doesn’t give them enough flexibility to cut costs
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) noted Thursday that USPS had lost more than half a billion dollars since the Senate passed its bill in April — close to half of the savings from the initial wave of consolidations — and again urged the House to speed up its work.
“Given these dire circumstances it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Postmaster General is moving forward to reduce costs with the limited tools at his disposal, but the reality is that efforts of this scale are not enough to fundamentally fix the Postal Service's financial problems,” Carper, a key sponsor of the Senate bill, said in a statement.
The Senate bill also included restrictions on how many processing centers USPS could consolidate. Senate aides said Thursday that only the Postal Service's initial push to consolidate 140 processing centers would appear to be supported by their legislation.
Over in the House, Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) suggested that, with USPS again altering cost-cutting plans, the GOP plan in his chamber was the only one in Congress that would solidify the agency's finances long-term.
With some Democrats saying the current House bill doesn’t have the votes to pass the chamber, a working group of rural Republicans is also working with Ross and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to ensure that USPS still slashes enough costs as it preserves rural access to mail — something House aides say was not accomplished on the other side of the Capitol.
“The Senate bill delays any necessary cost savings for two years. That is akin to calling the fire department two years after your house burned down,” Ross, a co-sponsor of the House Republican bill, said in a statement. “The Senate bills saves politicians, the House bill saves the Postal Service.”