After working for the U.S. Postal Service for 24 years, Mark Lawrence is left with a choice - move away from his family or find a new career.
Lawrence is one of 110 employees at the Shallowford Road Mail Processing and Distribution Center facing displacement or unemployment after the Postal Service announced the plant likely will be shut down sometime after May 15.
Lawrence and his wife, Maribeth, love Chattanooga because they can continue to live with their daughter, a junior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. They have a house, friends, a whole life here. The Lawrences don't want their family to split up, but with less than eight years to go until Mark Lawrence is eligible for retirement, they just might have to.
"It's hard to walk away from something like that when you've dedicated your life to it and sacrificed a lot of things," Maribeth Lawrence said. "To sacrifice and do these kind of things and then have to walk away and start over, probably nowhere near the salary he's at, it's scary."
Though the Shallowford Road Post Office will remain open, all of Chattanooga's mail sorting and distribution operations will likely shift to Atlanta and Nashville. The closure of the Shallowford Road center is dependent on the all-but-certain slackening of first-class mail service standards. The Postal Service wants to slow the quickest delivery times from one day to two, giving local mail the time needed to travel the extra distance before heading to its final destination.
The Chattanooga closure is one of 223 announced Thursday in a bid to save the federally mandated but not federally funded service from the brink of bankruptcy. In fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Postal Service announced $5.1 billion in losses.
"We are in dire straits right now," spokesman David Walton said. "We're trying to make all these consolidations happen to stay on good footing, but also to keep mail affordable."
Betsy Yoder, Chattanooga's Postmaster General, was on vacation and unavailable for comment Thursday.
Shutting down the Chattanooga processing center is expected to save $2 million annually. First-class mail sent from Chattanooga will keep its postmark if sent from a post office.
As people shift their correspondence and bill payments online, first-class mail has fallen by 3 billion pieces a year from its 2006 peak. In response, the Postal Service hopes to shave 35,000 positions from its 120,000-strong distribution center workforce over time.
Most of the jobs at the centers to be closed are under contracts with no-layoff clauses, leaving employees with a choice - move to an open job somewhere else or move on to a new career.
R.J. Hoffman, area vice president for the American Postal Workers Union, said few workers want to transfer, and because of family and medical problems, many can't.
When the Remote Encoding Center at Eastgate closed in 2009, 22 of the 144 workers couldn't transfer, Hoffman said, and he expects similar numbers this time.
Hoffman said the Postal Service needs to find a way to become solvent, but the organization is going about it the wrong way.
"It's not a good idea to hurt customer service just to save a buck," he said. "If you look at the numbers, we're going up in management. Why are we increasing managers if you've got fewer workers to supervise with less mail to supervise?"
The average Tennessee distribution center worker earned $48,370 annually in 2010, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data available. The average postmaster and mail superintendent earned $66,560.