Saturday, January 19, 2013

USPS's Inaccurate Annual Compliance Data: CPUs

The U.S. Postal Service provides to the Postal Regulatory Commission data regarding all parts of its operations. While there are lots of fascinating tidbits all around, my primary interest as the 'postal tourist' involves information regarding USPS's physical infrastructure. To me this includes Post Offices, classified stations and branches, carrier annexes, and mail processing facilities. I also track contract postal units (CPUs) which, even though they are not staffed by postal employees, are the closest "Alternative Access" channel USPS possesses to formal post offices. CPUs, ideally, supplement USPS's 'formal' network. Tracking them enables greater understanding of access to postal services in a community, and so it is important that accurate information be made available to the public for further analysis.

A PRC Chairman's Information Request requested that USPS provide a list of post offices suspensions, offices formally closed, data regarding all collection boxes in the country(!), identification of all Contract Postal Units (including CPOs, a subset of CPU), and identification of all active Village Post Offices. On January 17, 2013 USPS responded to each of these requests.

This is the Chairman's request (see link above):
Please provide an Excel spreadsheet including Office Name (or other appropriate identifier), Unit Type (Community Post Office (CPO) or Contract Postal Unit (CPU)), Location (City and State), and 5-digit ZIP Code for the following:
a. CPUs and CPOs in existence at the beginning of FY 2012;
b. CPUs and CPOs newly established in FY 2012;
c. CPUs and CPOs closed in FY 2012; and
d. CPUs and CPOs in existence at the end of FY 2012.

USPS responded [see page 4]:
Please see USPS Library Reference USPS-LR-FY12-45, ChIR2.3.xls.

The author has, and he concludes that the data provided by the U.S. Postal Service to the Postal Regulatory Commission regarding CPUs is incomplete and inaccurate. How do I know? Because I've visited locations around the country during FY 2012 that are completely unaccounted for by the response documentation provided.

Save The Post Office analyzed the overall data, and concluded that a net of 500 Contract Postal Units closed during FY 2012, leading to a nearly 15% reduction in contract operations. I do not believe this assessment to be correct. Rather, I'm convinced that the data provided by USPS are incomplete and otherwise misleading.

The U.S. Postal Service, in replying to a similar request for its fiscal year 2011, responded with an Excel file with three sheets: "Closed FY 2011", "Opened FY 2011", and "Open_End FY 2011". There is no reason it should not be able to create a nearly identical product for 2012. Heck, the response to "List the CPUs open at the beginning of FY 2012" should be just about identical to the "List the CPUs open at the end of FY 2011," right? Instead, USPS has responded with a one-sheet Excel file that addresses none of the questions at hand.

Las Vegas

In analyzing a 3,000-row spreadsheet it helps to check a region of entries against information you know. I found it helpful to sort the data first by state, and then by ZIP code. My first test region is the Las Vegas metropolitan area, an area in which I spent five nights and visited every active classified and contract postal operation last spring. I've made a photographic map of all these operations available. There were 21 CPUs in operation within the Las Vegas metro area (which, here, includes Las Vegas, Henderson, and North Las Vegas) at the beginning of May 2012.

(A screenshot of the map:)
Las Vegas postal map

My first observation about the Postal Service data (which is easier to see if you sort the spreadsheet by ZIP code) is that there are 12 duplicate entries: There are 11 gas stations in the region that were previously known as City Stop, each of which possessed a CPU. The chain was bought out by 7-11, and it's likely the CPUs have been converted to that name. In the USPS list, each operation is thus listed twice: once as a City Stop and once as a 7-11. You'll observe that the 7-11 operations occupy sequential contract numbers: 15597 to 15607. This is because they were converted at the same time. In any case, the entries:

15606 7-11 #39599 CPU LAS VEGAS NV 89131
are the same, as are:

15604 7-11 #39600 CPU LAS VEGAS NV 89144

... and so forth.

Another duplicate, listed with two different contract numbers, involves the Greenland Market CPU of 89146, a contract unit located at the front a large Korean supermarket. There is only one Greenland Market.

Accounting for these duplicates, USPS has accounted for 18 of the 21 CPUs within the region. Missing are:
  • Mini Mart and Smoke Shop CPU: 89147
  • Sun Drugs CPU: 89101; active for 35 years(?)
  • Thunderbird Mail Center CPU: 89115; active for at least 15 years
All of these operations -- including, yes, all 11 then-City Stops -- have been mapped and pictured at the map link provided above, and were visited and photographed during FY 2012. And yes, all 21 were listed in the 2011 report.

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tulsa is the parent post office of four CPUs: the East Central Mail Center CPU (74128); American Heritage Bank CPU (74132); U.S.A. Mail Center CPU (74133); and Pryority Mail CPU (74133). As a matter of fact, the latter is among the highest-grossing CPU in the entire U.S. (In some years it is the top-grossing CPU.) Yet it is not listed among the contract units active during FY 2012. Here's a photo, taken during a lull in the otherwise constant stream of customers:

Pryority Mail CPU; Tulsa, OK

The U.S.A. Mail Center CPU is a critical operation as it effectively serves as the retail unit for the Chimney Hills Carrier Annex next door. Yet it's not listed either.

Interestingly enough, the U.S.A. Mail Center CPU and American Heritage CPU had their ZIP codes mis-listed in USPS's 2011 CPU listings.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

The largest city in one of the nation's least-populous states is rather remarkable in that it possesses, besides its main post office, one classified station and 14 CPUs. They are designated numbered stations 1 through 14. Thirteen CPUs are locations of two regional chains: Lewis Drug's and Hy-Vee. There are six of the former and seven of the latter, respectively. USPS's 2012 CPU Directory only accounts for six Hy-Vee locations, however.

Sioux Falls, SD: HyVee CPU (Station 12) Sioux Falls, SD: Hy-Vee CPU

New York City

  • Multiple listings: "Mr. Mailman" and "Mr. Mailman on 53rd Inc" are one and the same. Kate's Market Place in Breezy Point is listed twice despite the fact it opened this past year.
  • Better Letter, the CPU I wrote about last March, is also listed twice -- despite the fact that it was forced to shut down on May 30. (The "A&L Management" listing from the Bronx -- that is the Bathgate CPU -- and Brooklyn's Rita's Dry Cleaners CPU suffered the same fate.)
  • Among the absences is Fordham University's CPU (Station #37) in the Bronx.
  • JW Pharmacy in Flushing, NY is not an actual CPU, though it is listed.

Long Island

  • SUNY Old Westbury's CPO is absent, as is the SUNY Stony Brook CPO which closed December 2011. (If Better Letter, which was not open at the end of FY 2012, is listed, shouldn't this be as well?)
  • East Hampton's The Corner Store CPU is absent.
  • Fire Island's Davis Park CPO is absent.
  • Fire Island's Kismet CPO is misspelled 'Kismit'.
  • Depot Stationery is misspelled "Stationary" [see below]. Stationary means 'not moving', though I suppose that is a good quality for a given postal operation these days.
  • The Fair Harbor CPO is proceeded by "SEAS", meaning seasonal (as in, open only during the summer); interestingly, this annotation is not applied to the other CPOs on Fire Island, for which this is also true.
Huntington Station, NY: Depot Stationery CPU

There are many more errors or inconsistencies where these came from. As such I believe this response to the Chairman's Request should be remanded for further consideration.


Anonymous said...

As an employee of just under 30 years, the public and Congress would be (or should be) amazed and disgusted at the way the USPS counts ANYTHING. I believe this is one reason why its volumes have "plummeted", since automation now counts most letters, and a huge percentage of "flats" by the piece as they go through the sorting machines.

Before, a mere pencil was used, and volumes were estimated, guessed, changed, filled in and in any other way manipulated to account for overtime, management bonuses, etc.

I've watched it being done, and shake my head. I've personally been given an extra circular, out of thin air, to account for the overtime I knew I needed. POW, there you go, an extra 600 pieces of mail that never existed! And that was while I telling what manipulations occurred in the office and on the computer!

To watch management right now, counting parcels, is hilariously pathetic. A glance into the hampers, and poof, an estimate of parcels, both large and small. OR, they ask the carrier, who may have already placed several trays and tubs of mail on top of the parcels, and a "your guess is as good as mine" figure is written down. Or they go by the number of parcels on the scanner, which will not include parcels large and small that do not have scan-able barcodes. For most routes, such guesstimations will be up to a twenty percent error, or worse.

While volume has noticeably decreased in some categories, especially "flats", most carriers will opine that general volume, and thus the workload, has not decreased that much, although the profitable first class mail may have.

A large difference in the volumes of the past and present are due to methods of counting: pencil vs. machine!

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with you on parcel volume count. The "official" method given by HQ is to attach a formula that credits a set number of pieces to each different type of parcel equipment. Hampers, GPMCs, bags...they all get a set piece count. It's ridiculous, crazy, absurd. On one hand we have an exact piece count on letters, but then they credit an arbitrary number to the parcels. It would be more accurate to just eyeball the equipment and give it a best guess number.

So you ask, why do they count it that way? Because it takes much longer for clerks to do a piece count than a set formula. Besides, management claims it all washes out in the end...Yea, it's all whitewashed.

Anonymous said...

You are doing the exact same thing management is doing. Whining, crying and complaining based on your personal agendas. If u cant get it done in 8 hours, then invite them out with you for the day. If you are telling the truth, i am sure after they go out with you on three or four days for over 8 hours, they will leave you alone in the future.