HAMPDEN, Maine — Bob Garcelon stopped in mid-step, looked up at the gray sky, and thought a few seconds when asked what the prevailing mood was among employees at the U.S. Postal Service Eastern Maine Processing and Distribution Facility on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s just frustrating right now. That’s all it is,” said the Hermon resident, who has been a mail handler at the facility for the last 17 years.
Garcelon was one of the 183 employees who were told Wednesday night that the processing part of the facility would be closed — leaving Maine with one processing facility in Scarborough and only 13 employees remaining at the Hampden plant after a consolidation process is completed in July.
One clerk who started sorting mail back at the old location on Harlow Street in Bangor and has been a clerk for 18 years was asked if confusion was the main feeling.
“Hell, no, it’s frustration — anger,” said the clerk, who didn’t want to be identified. “We might have had 60 or so people here when they told us. We were stunned. It was just silence. There was nothing. When it came time for questions and answers, there weren’t a lot of questions. We were just stunned.”
And a day later?
“We don’t understand why,” said the clerk, who travels to work from Ellsworth and back each day. “Why?”
Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service Northern New England District, said the consolidation resulted from a USPS nationwide study of 264 processing facilities that started last August in response to a 25 percent decline in first-class mail volume since 2006.
“Of those, 212 facilities went through the area mail processing study process, and of those, 183 were found feasible to consolidate totally or in part,” said Rizzo.
Two processing facilities in New England have been slated for closure: Hampden and White River Junction in Vermont.
After the processing facility is closed, the Hampden plant will still have three functions: as the location for Bangor letter carriers to pick up and bring mail, as a “dock operation transportation hub” through which mail to and from local post offices and Scarborough will go, and as a bulk mail entry unit for packages to and from larger business mailers.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation reacted with surprise and anger to the decision to move Hampden’s processing functions to Scarborough.
“I find it astounding that the USPS is moving forward with the proposed consolidation of the Hampden plant given the grave concerns raised at the January 11th public meeting in Brewer, which I attended with well over 350 concerned Mainers,” Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe said in a press release Thursday.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who also spoke at the Jan. 11 meeting, has expressed her strident opposition to the USPS decision both publicly and in a letter to U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahue.
“I am deeply disappointed and shocked that the Postal Service is proceeding to close its Hampden, Maine, processing center, a decision that is contrary to the Postal Service’s own interests and that will create job losses and hurt service in much of Maine,” Collins wrote to Donahue. “This decision is inexplicable given the compelling testimony at the public hearing in January about the detrimental impact of closing the plant. The hardworking employees of the Hampden facility deserve better, as do all the residents of northern, eastern, and central Maine who would be affected by this terrible decision.”
The closure of a processing plant in Portsmouth, N.H., late last year means that Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont will be served by five processing plants, with Maine having just the one in Scarborough.
“This plan will have profoundly negative implications for timely and reliable mail service in northern, western and eastern Maine,” added Snowe, who toured the facility last December. “In particular, our state’s seniors could face unacceptable delays in receiving their medications, and our small businesses could lose critical time in shipping goods to their customers. Simply put, the Hampden facility is a lifeline for businesses, families, and individuals across Maine, and the USPS should reconsider this decision.”
Hampden Community and Economic Director Dean Bennett said the announcement was tough news and that when jobs — particularly a significant number of good jobs offering solid benefits — are lost, a community suffers as a whole.
“For the region as a whole, anyone working here, even if they don’t live here, has a trickle-down effect on the local economy,” Bennett said. “If 170 jobs go away, that translates into less economic stimulus because less people are buying groceries, lunches, gas, or coffee at the convenience store. It also could conceivably translate into a population decrease.”
Rizzo said the USPS has an excellent record for placing its displaced, unionized employees into other positions, but that their job locations, work hours and job descriptions likely will change.
“We’ll follow union collective bargaining and legal requirements and attempt to find other positions for those workers to fill at other facilities if they are qualified for them,” said Rizzo. “We will also pay moving costs if their new commute is more than 50 miles than their present one.”
That doesn’t brighten the mood of Garcelon and other veteran employees of the Hampden processing facility.
“I’ll tell you what, from what I’ve heard on the floor, I’ll bet maybe 30 percent of the people here will flat out quit,” said the clerk from Ellsworth. “They’ve got young kids or big mortgages or whatever, and they’re not going to uproot their whole family to move to Portland, if they’re lucky, or out of Maine if they’re not that lucky.”
While moving isn’t an option for Garcelon, he’s not excited about a long commute, either.
“I’ve got a house here, a family here,” the Hermon resident said. “Why would I commute to Portland every day? I just don’t know. I’d probably have no choice, you know. I mean, I’m 54 years old and in between working and retirement.”
Some workers are considering even more drastic measures, according to the Ellsworth clerk.
“A lot of these guys are talking about filing for bankruptcy,” the clerk said. “I mean, the average age of most of these people is around 50, so what else are they going to go do?”
It’s that kind of talk that 2nd District Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud and other members of the congressional delegation have been trying to impress upon USPS officials the last few months.
“I’m concerned about the hardworking employees who may lose their jobs and the thousands of Maine residents and businesses whose service could be impacted,” Michaud said in a statement. “Closing this facility would be a major step in the wrong direction. Rolling back services and firing employees is not the way to restore the firm financial footing that is needed at the Postal Service.”