Postal Service to close Wichita encoding center, eliminating 380 jobs

02/21/2013 6:37 AM

02/21/2013 6:37 AM

The U.S. Postal Service said Wednesday that it plans to close its remote encoding center in Wichita later this year, resulting in the loss of 380 jobs.

In a news release, postal officials said the center at 2601 S. Oliver employs 797 people, 417 of whom are covered by collective bargaining agreements and will be reassigned to available positions within the Postal Service.

The other 380 employees who are not represented by the union will be offered job counseling to help them find other employment.

The center is slated to close on or after Sept. 1.

Officials said improvements in technology are partly behind the closing of the center, which automates and expedites the processing of handwritten mail and poorly printed addresses.

“When you combine that with declining first-class (mail) volume — it’s down more than 25 percent in the last few years — it just means there are fewer images that need to be processed by these encoding centers,” said Richard Watkins, a regional USPS spokesman. “They were always intended to be phased out over time.”

Most of the people who work at the center visually check electronic images of mail from all across the country that have hard-to-read addresses, and correct or verify them and send that information back to mail processing centers. But improvements in optical character recognition technology at those mail processing centers mean that 98 percent of all handwritten letters and 99 percent of machine-printed mail can be read without the help of an REC employee, Watkins said.

He said the plan for union employees is to find them positions within the Postal Service locally or outside the state. “We’ll work with those employees and their union representatives on the details of how those jobs will be filled,” Watkins said.

Watkins added that the job eliminations and transfers will happen over time, and not at once.

Sally Davidow, communications director for the American Postal Workers Union in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday afternoon that it appeared no one from the union had received advanced notice of the closing.

“We’re required to get notice,” Davidow said, adding that the union and its members learned of the closing when management informed them along with all employees on Wednesday.

She said it was understood by the union that the RECs were a temporary arrangement but the Wichita announcement came as a surprise. “There have been rumors” of its closing, Davidow said.

Wichita is one of two remaining remote encoding centers for the Postal Service. The other, in Salt Lake City, will remain open for now, though Watkins said it, too, will eventually be closed in a few years.

At the height of the remote encoding program, there were 55 centers processing 19 billion images a year. Between Wichita and Salt Lake City, they processed 2.4 billion images in the past year.

Watkins reiterated that the RECs were always a temporary solution when they were first established in 1994. He said most of those 55 centers were open between five and seven years.

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