Katrina Fugate isn't just worried about losing her job, she's worried she could lose her family.
Her post office is her life, but after 25 years in Graysville she'll be forced to move on as the U.S. Postal Service restructures its rural offices. Whether she's able to find another job with the service, she'll have to leave her community behind.
"That's going to be the hardest part," she said through tears. "They become your family."
Fugate wasn't alone in that sentiment Friday, when about 50 postmasters from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi gathered at the Chattanooga Choo Choo for the region's National League of Postmasters meeting.
Attendees all seemed to have similar concerns. Will they still have jobs when the Postal Service cuts hours at 13,000 rural post offices, including 48 in the Chattanooga area, and will the remaining postmasters be able to do their jobs under the changed circumstances?
More than 21,000 postmasters across the country are being offered early retirement incentives. But Mark Strong, president of the National League of Postmasters, expects just under a third to take the deals.
Postmaster historically has been a secure position. But workers across the country are learning that in tough economic times, no job is bulletproof.
Fugate is eligible for the retirement incentives, but she was shocked when the Postal Service announced in May that she could lose her job.
"I've been with the Postal Service since I was 20 years old, so it's all I know," she said. "If I retire, I don't have a plan B."
Fugate doesn't begrudge the Postal Service for putting her in that position. She understands these are drastic times, she said, and they require drastic measures.
The federally mandated but not federally funded organization expects to lose more than $14 billion this year without any changes. This plan is expected to save about $500 million annually.
Strong said affecting this many jobs is not an ideal situation, but this is a solution that keeps rural post offices open across the country, though at reduced hours, and ensures delivery to every address in the country.
"We have fought very hard to make sure rural America has a post office in each community that wants one. This gets that done," he said. "We have to assure that stability is still there, that the post office's reliability and brand stay strong."
First-class mail volume has plummeted over the last several years, necessitating the reduction in hours, but Strong said this needs to be just the first step in a series of changes to return the Postal Service to profitability.
Those changes may involve dropping Saturday mail delivery, unifying neighborhood delivery sites and consolidating processing and distribution centers, each of which could save billions annually, he said.
Chattanooga has a processing and distribution center on Shallowford Road, which is scheduled for closure by 2014.
"All the answers aren't there yet," said David Dillman, the Postal Service's Tennessee District Manager. "We're working to see what works best for each community."
In the meantime, Fugate and thousands of other postmasters will compete for fewer jobs. Some will leave their homes for new communities, others will take demotions, and some may be left jobless.
"There's a lot of us out there. The competition is going to be tough," Fugate said. "We're all in the same boat."