Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate

Smith River'slong-time clerkstages protest

For 34 years Luanna Scott went to work at 8:30 a.m. - sorting mail, greeting neighbors and serving early birds at the Smith River Post Office.

But on Thursday the longtime postal clerk spent the first 30 minutes of her typical workday picketing the building where she's been a fixture since 1978, holding up a smile and a Sharpie-penned protest sign to the passersby on Fred Haight Drive.

At 9 a.m., when the post office now opens to the public, Scott went back to business as usual.

"I really believe in service. And I don't believe cutting service is the way to go," she said.

Smith River's half-hour reduction in service precedes the implementation of a plan that the U.S. Postal Service hopes will save millions of dollars by cutting operating hours and consolidating management at rural offices across the country.

The Post Office Structure Plan, or POStPlan, follows a year of well-publicized tumult for the USPS, a federally mandated but fiscally self-sustaining organization, which first announced last summer that serious money troubles could result in thousands of rural closures.

Now, rather than widespread shutterings, "the new strategy would preserve rural Post Offices by modifying retail hours to match customer use," according to the USPS website.

As Scott swapped her protest sign for an official smock and name tag on Thursday, Postmaster Ken Miller piped up from the back room: "Lu, you can stop your picketing. It's 9 a.m."

Miller, who's been the postmaster in Smith River for eight years, said he analyzed customer habits for a year before recommending that the office open later in the morning. He had to figure out a way to reduce overtime hours, and lunchtime and evenings are busier, he said.

Under the POStPlan, Miller would get a two percent raise, as well as increased responsibilities for overseeing some part-time or contract employees at smaller post offices in Del Norte County that face much more drastic cutbacks over the next two years.

Gasquet's office is looking at a 50 percent reduction in hours, from eight to four a day, while Klamath's operations would be scaled back 25 percent, from eight to six a day.

Nationwide, "The (POStPlan) plan will reduce hours at 13,000 small rural post offices ... depending on how much business it does and how much work there is for the postmaster. Full-time career postmasters will be replaced by part-time workers earning much less with no benefits," Steve Hutkins said by email. He's the founder of SavethePostOffice.com, a website documenting post office closures, consolidations and the efforts being made to prevent them.

Robin Dal Porto is a Del Norte native and the Gasquet postmaster.

"When I got this position in 2004, I got it with the intention to retire here. If they cut the hours from eight to four, I'll have to look for another job ... To me, this is more than a job. I love the community and I love the people." she said by phone Thursday.

For now, Dal Porto is optimistic. The POStPlan won't be in full effect until 2014 and there's a chance the situation will change, either through legislation, or because Gasquet is too far from the next nearest post office in Crescent City for the USPS to justify closing it half of the time.

The USPS will hold a public meeting before reducing hours in Gasquet and Klamath.

Back in Smith River, Miller didn't begrudge Scott for her "revolt," as he jokingly called it. He appreciated her using an "American right" to speak her mind. The "Honk for Service" side of her protest sign was added at his suggestion.

"As you can tell, even though she's on that side of the fence and I'm on this side, we still get along pretty good," Miller said. "We're a team here."

He and Scott both blamed Congress. It passed 2006 legislation that requires the USPS to pre-fund retiree health benefits 75 years into the future, in a 10-year period. On Wednesday, it defaulted on one of these huge payments to the U.S. Treasury.

Scott is set to retire in 330 days. Until then, she doesn't plan on using the extra morning time to protest again.

"I've made my statement," she said, whisking a bouquet of flowers off the customer service counter - dinner plate dahlias, gladiolas and roses she brought from her home garden to brighten the place up.

Reach Emily Jo Cureton at ecureton@triplicate.com.