The U.S. Postal Service's Pasco mail handling center could be closed by Sept. 1, the president of the Tri-City branch of the postal union said.
But Postal Service spokesman Ernie Swanson said no firm date has been set. He declined to say the facility is closing at all, saying its services gradually will be reduced.
Initially, letters will stop being postmarked in Pasco, instead being shipped to Spokane and sorted, Swanson said.
Even after the reduction in services is finished, he said mail sent in bundles to the Tri-Cities from Spokane still will be sorted in Pasco by local workers for Mid-Columbia destinations.
The center on West Court Street has 50 "career" employees, as well as 12 "noncareer" support workers who are not given the same employment guarantees, said local American Postal Workers Union President John Michael Wald.
"They are all on notice that they will be closed at some point," he said.
Pasco's center is one of three in Eastern Washington that will be consolidated into the Spokane handling center, but it's expected to see most of its operations halted before locations in Wenatchee and Yakima, Wald said.
In all, seven facilities in Washington are expected to eventually be closed and consolidated into handling centers in Seattle and Spokane. Pasco's is the only one in the accelerated closure plan, Wald said.
He said the number of Pasco workers has dropped by about a third since the closure was announced last year.
The closure date for the Pasco handling facility has shifted several times since the post service first announced plans to close it in early 2012. It was then set to close in mid-2012, then in February 2013, then in 2014.
But the Postal Service announced last month that it told Pasco employees that it would close the facility this year, though it didn't announce when.
Nationally, it is one of 55 mail processing plants that had its closure moved up to this year. The post office has said it can cut more than $3 billion a year from its budget by closing hundreds of mail processing facilities.
While employees already have been given notice that operations are being cut in Pasco, Swanson said the Postal Service is required by union contracts to give another 60-day notice of closure. The Postal Service also is letting employees know of vacant positions they can apply for.
"We give them that leeway to give them the opportunity to find other positions," Swanson said. "It's up to individual employees. They have to take the initiative to file for a position in a different location or a different occupation."
Wald said contracts prevent the Postal Service from laying off workers, leaving it with few options he knows of in dealing with the employees.
They include transferring them to another site. But the Postal Service doesn't like to do that because it requires it to not only pay employee moving expenses but pay them their wages while they are in the process of moving.
He has heard of some shuttered facilities where workers continue to show up, but are paid to basically do nothing all day.
The other option is enticing employees to leave. Wald said he is expecting the Postal Service to offer a statewide voluntary retirement plan to eligible employees.
For customers used to mailing a letter to another Tri-City address and having it arrive the next day, Wald said the closure of the Pasco handling facility can mean a several-day wait for letters to go to Spokane and return.
While customers will have to make adjustments, Swanson said the biggest change people will see is they will have to mail their letters earlier in order for it to make a new last daily pick-up time.
"This has been going on around the country," Swanson said. "It seems to be going quite smoothly."
While the Pasco mail handing center will close, the post office services at the same site on West Court Street will remain open.
Wald advises residents to contact their congressional representatives if they are concerned about the changes.
He noted that Congress passed a law ordering the Postal Service to keep six-day-a-week service going when consumers complained.
While the Postal Service is trying to cut billions from its budget, Wald said the root of its financial problem is a 2006 law that gives the post office 10 years to pay for health benefits for future retirees 75 years in advance -- something no other federal agency is required to do.