Merrifield Post Office New Early Closing Brings Grief

In a move ending more than three decades of midnight-postmark service at the Merrifield Post Office branch, the U.S. Postal Service announced in October that the popular facility will now close regularly at 8 p.m. on weeknights.postoffice.jpg

Patrons in Falls Church, Fairfax County and throughout the D.C. Metropolitan area who were accustomed to the midnight service – considered a crucial asset to local businesses that require same-day postmarks for time-sensitive packages – now need to trek nearly 20 miles to the main office of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) near Union Station in Washington, D.C., which closes from Monday – Friday at 11:58 p.m.

Reactions from customers and the business community have varied, according to sources at the USPS and the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which provided conflicting tales of the post-hours change fallout.

Initial reports that the USPS intended to reduce Merrifield’s hours caused uproar with Local 6803, the area chapter of the APWU, whose president, Douglas Sapp, wrote a letter to the editor published in the Oct. 22 issue of the Falls Church News-Press. He claimed the “largely unadvertised change will cause problems for many of our customers.”

U.S. Rep.-elect Gerry Connolly expressed similar concern. As chair of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, he wrote an Oct. 6 letter addressed to Michael Furey, the district manager of the USPS Northern Virginia. In the letter, Connolly said that “many members of our business and legal communities have come to rely on these extended hours of operation.” He warned that the hours reduction would leave Fairfax County with no post office open after 8 p.m., posing “a significant challenge to residents and businesses alike.”

Unlike its reaction in the 1990s to proposed service cuts, the business community has remained silent so far about the recent changes. Providence district supervisor Linda Smyth, who joined her colleagues in a motion expressing the board’s opposition to the USPS’s plans, told the News-Press, “Honestly, I am a little bit surprised that I haven’t heard anything from the business community.”

President Sapp said that many customers are “really upset about the recent changes and are in dismay.”

“They’re coming from around the area, as far as Maryland, to do business here at Merrifield,” said Sapp, adding that Merrifield was the only D.C. metropolitan post office, outside of the USPS main office in downtown D.C., open until midnight. “They don’t want to take off hours to get there before the post office closes, and they also aren’t aware that the post office opens at 9 a.m. instead of 8,” he said.

Sapp also cautioned that the main office would hamper customers’ needs. “Now they have to go all the way to the main station, where they have to wait sometimes out the door, with traffic problems on some days, too,” he said.

Even so, Sandy Latham, the USPS district manager of Customer Relations, reported few complaints to her office about the Merrifield hour reduction. She said that “fewer than 10 letters” have come to her office, and said that “no letter regarding Merrifield has crossed my desk.”

Latham said there have only been two calls to the manager of Consumer Affair’s office regarding the Merrifield hours change.

She explained that the hours reduction stemmed from a district-wide study of post office Point of Sales (POS) systems, which gathered the volume of customers to scores of offices across Northern Virginia. “This helped us balance the needs of our customers with the necessary services at all of our locations,” she said.

According to Latham, the study concluded that Merrifield’s hours could be reduced with no loss of service to the majority of customers. Likewise, several area post offices will have increased hours, although no Northern Virginia post office would remain open past 8 p.m. At the Falls Church postal branch on W. Broad Street, however, the final pick-up has moved to 4 p.m. from 5:45 p.m.

Merrifield will have extended hours during major mail peaks like Christmas and New Year’s, when the office will remain open until 10 p.m. on designated evenings.

Additionally, Maryanne Wright, the Communications Coordinator for the USPS district, said, “Furey has expressed a desire to extend hours on Tax Day (April 15),” but noted “there is nothing definitive as of yet to make hours later that day.”

Wright also emphasized the use of the Automated Postal Center (APC) available 24 hours a day at the Merrifield office, which she said could perform “almost any transaction that can be handled at the retail window.” A second APC was scheduled to be installed at the office on Dec. 3.

Among its abilities, the APC can dispense first class stamps, as well weigh and rate packages up to 70 pounds, and provide the appropriate postage.

Sapp criticized the APC as difficult to use for some customers. “I’ll find long lines at Merrifield of people waiting to use an APC, and people aren’t always using them correctly,” he said, noting that customers might be confused by the APC’s procedures and package size and weight limitations.

Primarily, the change of hours is a fiscal necessity, said Wright. Nationally, “the Postal Service experienced a greater-than-expected net loss of $2.8 billion this past fiscal year,” despite a previous $2 billion in cuts. The bottom line was “to remain viable for our customers,” said Wright.

The APWU, however, has remained suspicious of the move.

John Clements, the assistant to Local 6803 President Sapp and the Office Manager at the Merrifield AWPU, said that in a clear breach of policy procedures, the postal service “implemented plans and then notified the union.”

Sapp, who said that the union “has had a good relationship with the USPS,” pointed to financial difficulties arising from budgetary constraints for the federal agency, including a 1997 $5.6 billion investment in an retiree health care program, as directed by the U.S. Congress. Sapp said several unions and associations are working in conjunction with U.S. Rep. Moran, Wolf and Rep.-elect Connolly to investigate a deferral of payments to the plan so that the postal service could restore previous business hours to offices like Merrifield.

“I used to call Merrifield the best post office across the country,” said Sapp. “I’m afraid it is no more.”

District Manager Furey was unavailable for comment, and the Greater Merrifield Business Association did not respond to calls before press time.