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Paychecks, bill payments and birthday cards are just some of the types of mail that could take a little extra time in getting to Missoula mailboxes.

As part of a broader nationwide restructuring effort by the United States Postal Service, the main Missoula post office on Kent Avenue has eliminated its graveyard letter machine operator shifts, meaning letter mail that comes in the evening won’t be sorted and ready to go out the next day.

While the Postal Service might traditionally be known for letters, the way people communicate has changed and the organization is adapting to the market, said Pete Nowacki, a USPS spokesman for Montana based in Minneapolis.

A USPS reorganization program has been ongoing for several years, including centralizing processing operations, but Nowacki said the changes have not resulted in layoffs.

According to information released by USPS, it saved $865 million a year by consolidating mail processing facilities in 2012 and 2013.

The most recent change that went into effect earlier this month switched first class mail delivery standards. Letters and large envelopes that go out to Missoula and the surrounding area will move from a one- to three-day delivery time to a two- to three-day standard. 

The “network rationalization,” including delivery standard changes for first class mail, is estimated to save an additional $750 million per year.

Overall, the move will affect about nine percent of total mail volume, Nowacki said.

“There’s no impact right now to magazines and packages,” Nowacki said.

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While financial concerns played into the change in delivery standard, Nowacki said it also was made because the volume of that type of mail is so much less than what it once was.

“That mail you and I use when we pay a bill or mail a birthday card has cut in half over the last 10 years or so,” he said.

The savings achieved through the standard change will be used on initiatives like getting USPS further into the package delivery market, where Nowacki said it has seen double-digit growth over each of the past three holiday seasons.

“As electronic sources have taken away so much of the first class letter mail, it’s provided an increase in e-commerce. We want a piece of that potential,” Nowacki said.

While some of the letter sorters who are in the process of being reassigned are happy about being moved to the day and swing shifts, others are not, said Suzanna La Grange, Missoula USPS employee and president of the local American Postal Workers Union.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, change is hard,” she said. “What it boils down to is management at the highest level decided the sorting standard is less important.”

La Grange said U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is “not an advocate for USPS.”

“For his entire tenure as postmaster general he’s been systematically destroying those of us who work to provide service,” she said.

Donahoe is retiring on Feb. 1.

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La Grange said she commends local management on working to enact the changes while trying to cause as little long-term upheaval as possible. Right now, former graveyard shift letter sorters are being reassigned to work other shifts on a temporary basis.

“It's hard for people with kids. I raised a son by myself working graveyard, I know,” La Grange said.

While they are being reassigned, the employees are receiving an extra compensation similar to the added stipend they earned working the graveyard shift. Once the new shifts are decided on, they will be able to apply to them based on seniority.

The elimination of the overnight letter sorting shift will affect around 20 employees in Missoula, La Grange said.

“If you worked on the machine, you’re going to get moved to another shift,” she said.

While some of the employees took the news that the graveyard letter sorter shift was going away as a surprise, La Grange said it is part of a nationwide movement that was outlined as coming down the pipe last year.

“People don’t pay attention, they don’t read their union newsletters,” she said. “People need to make a big fuss if they want a Postal Service.”

The last time during the week that letters are collected is from the mailboxes outside the post office at 8 p.m. Any letters collected by then used to be worked on overnight so they could go out the following day. La Grange said that is no longer the case. The goal is now to have all city mail processed by 8 p.m.

“If you put mail in late on a Tuesday, it’s not going out until Thursday,” she said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.