By Sophia Boyd-Fliegel
Jackson Hole Daily
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Darlene Jones observed Labor Day in a drizzle with a bottle of Coke, a bright yellow rain jacket over her union-emblazoned quarter zip and a picket sign.
Jones, 57, was alone on the street corner outside the downtown post office, a building from which she retired last year after 19 years working there as a clerk and custodian.
Employees need permission to strike, she said. But as vice president of the American Postal Workers Union in Wyoming, she was prepared with literature that she pulled from her jacket pocket. Her message was part of the united voice of the American Postal Workers Union: Hire more workers.
“This used to be such an amazing office when I first got here,” she said. “Everybody worked hard so that they could play harder.”
On Thursday, the downtown Jackson post office suspended retail operations, sending customers a mile south to the midtown location to buy stamps and mail priority packages. Signs on the shuttered door attributed the closure to a staffing shortage.
Understaffing has been a chronic issue, causing a daylong closure at the downtown post office in 2021 and severely limited hours in Wilson starting in summer 2022.
“Stopping retail services is pretty much the worst-case scenario,” said James Boxrud at the U.S. Postal Service office in Denver. “We haven’t had to do that anywhere else in our district covering Colorado and Wyoming, at least that I’m aware of.”
Hiring starts at $52,000 a year and comes with full federal health care and retirement benefits, plus the possibility of overtime pay. Wages, though, are determined by bargaining agreements with unions. The American Postal Workers Union is one of seven unions covering approximately 550,000 career employees, the Postal Service website says.
“With our unions you make the same money if you work in Manhattan, Kansas, [as in] Manhattan, New York,” Boxrud said.
As a longtime leader in one of those unions, Jones said the labor shortage wasn’t about pay, however.
In her later years working for the Postal Service, Jones said, she enjoyed her job and received good pay. Though she commuted from Star Valley, she had a steady income and cheap health care.
Now she has a good pension. In her later years she picked up overtime as a janitor and worked 60 to 65 hours a week.
“Four out of the five years I made six figures,” Jones said.
Though she didn’t call out managers by name, Jones said that as recently as 2020 she wanted to see local bosses be better listeners and work with local governments on securing housing. New management, she said, has dropped the ball on recruitment.
“I don’t feel that local management respects employees at all,” she said.
Boxrud said he would have to take more time to comment on barriers to hiring and strategies to boost staff morale. He declined to comment on the long-term strategy of the government’s payment system. In the short term, he said, the acute customer-facing issue of retail closure should be remedied soon.
The office is recruiting from outside communities and offering overtime and paying for hotels in Jackson.
“We believe that we’ll have some long-term help up there this week,” Boxrud said Monday.
Though she’s retired, Jones said she has hope for the future of the office.
“My main thing is that I want to really work with local management on posting jobs to the public,” she said.
After 37 years with the Postal Service, Jones wants employees to have the same positive experience she did.
“It’s easy to lose your temper with customers when you’re grouchy and you’re tired,” she said. “They say, ‘Where’s my package?’ and you want to say, ‘I just want to eat a burger and go to bed.’ ”
Jones said she wants to see employees have the same positive, steady, stable working life that she did. Plus, she said, the Postal Service pays her pension.