From Turtletown, Tenn., to Hollywood, Ala., the U.S. Postal Service is poised to chop operating hours at about 60 rural post offices around the region.
When the USPS is done, patrons and postmasters will have as little as two hours a day to do business at the hardest-hit post offices.
The cutbacks in service are part of a massive, nationwide effort by the postal service to reduce hours at more than 13,000 rural post offices over the next two years in hopes of saving $500 million annually.
Post offices on the 260-page cutback list could see their work weeks reduced from around 40 hours to 30, 20 or even 10 hours.
Meetings to discuss the cuts began at affected post offices on Oct. 9 and will go on through September 2014.
"We're trying to do whatever we can to cut costs," Postal Service spokesman David Walton said. "We lost $8.5 billion in our last fiscal year. We're projected to lose about $15 billion in this fiscal year."
The Postal Service decided to cut hours rather than simply closing 3,700 rural post offices -- a plan it backed off from in May after strong pushback from affected residents.
But many who live and work in communities with post offices that may only operate six, four or two hours a day aren't happy about the coming cuts.
Postmaster James E. Smith, who was working at the office in Whiteside, Tenn., on Thursday, said customers see the little white clapboard-sided branch on J.E. Clause Highway as important beyond just a place to buy stamps or drop off letters.
"It's part of the lifeblood of these small communities," Smith said. "That's what the customers tell me."
Surveys give four choices
In Palmer, Tenn., Palmer Market cashiers Mildred Borne and Peggy Argo say a reduction of hours at any of the six post offices in Grundy County will force them to change their schedules or even the branches they use.
Borne and Argo work in Palmer, where the post office is on a list to have its hours cut. The post offices in their nearby hometowns are also on the list; Borne lives in Gruetli-Laager and Argo lives in Altamont, and both sites can expect cuts from eight to six operating hours a day.
Borne said she goes to the post office about three times a week "unless I'm expecting something; then I go every day."
Argo has a similar schedule and notes that a change in hours could mean a big inconvenience.
"They might have to reduce the hours, but we still need our post offices," Borne said.
"They're going to do a survey to see what time people could get to the post office and leave it open the most busy hours," Argo said.
The USPS is sending surveys to all box holders at affected post offices and will hold a public meeting about two weeks after the survey is sent.
The survey asks postal customers to pick one of four options: Keep the post office open for reduced hours, close the post office and have roadside delivery through a rural carrier, replace the post office with "village store" service at an area store or library, or close the post office and provide P.O. box service at a nearby post office.
After weighing information from the surveys and the meeting, the Postal Service will make a decision on reduced hours, and the new schedule will go into effect 30 days later.
Is resistance futile?
While most officials at the listed post offices didn't want to talk on the record about the changes, some said they were anxious to see the outcome of meetings held recently and over the next few weeks.
The reduction in hours will affect employees, too. If a post office is cut back to two hours a day, that means employees will be there only two hours.
"We shouldn't have any problems filling those positions," Walton said of the 10-hour-per-week jobs.
Retirees are interested in coming back to work for the Postal Service, he said, and some postmasters whose hours are cut may be able to double up and work at two nearby post offices, he said.
But the Rural Organizing Project, a Portland, Ore.-area nonprofit group, takes a skeptical view.
"When a post office doesn't have a postmaster, the USPS then has the right to close the post office. Imagine what will happen if the USPS tries to replace a full-time postmaster position with a clerk. What happens when the USPS cannot find someone to fill that position?" states a 14-page manual the group published on Oct. 2 titled "Organizing to Save Rural Post Offices: A Community Organizing Toolkit."
Organizer Jessica Campbell said communities in at least one rural Oregon community were able to rally and keep their post office open when the Postal Service proposed to shutter 3,700 post offices nationwide.
But Campbell isn't sure organizing can get the Postal Service to maintain hours.
"We don't really know," she said. "Maybe folks will put up enough of a fight."
Walton said maintaining the hours isn't an option; the Postal Service needs to make cuts because it's losing so much money, he said.
David Griffith said he's been coming to the Flat Rock, Ala., post office about every day for 40 years.
A change in hours shouldn't be a problem "as long they remain open five or six days a week," Griffith said. He gets part of his mail in his mailbox at home, but "the more important mail" arrives in his box at the post office.
While Griffith wasn't surprised that hours will be reduced, he didn't want to see cuts to go any deeper.
"I definitely don't want the post office to ever close," he said.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.