By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Dozens of United States Postal Service workers took to the streets of San Francisco on Tuesday in the first of a series of planned protests against expanding post office services to Staples Inc stores using non-union workers.
Post office employees and mail carriers shouted from loudspeakers and held picket signs outside a busy Staples store in the city's Nob Hill neighborhood, seeking to draw attention to an arrangement they say threatens the quality of mail service to U.S. residents.
The USPS and Staples agreed in October to allow Staples employees to sell postal packaging and accept mail that is later picked up from the stores by postal workers.
The Postal Service has been plagued by financial troubles as more people pay their bills and communicate electronically instead of sending stamped mail, and as it struggles to pay into a health fund for its future retirees, as mandated by a 2006 law.
Members of the American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers said that allowing non-sworn postal workers to handle mail could cause issues including identity theft and an uptick in mismanaged parcels.
"We're concerned about the safety and sanctity of the mail," said Omar Gonzalez, a 59-year-old post office worker from Los Angeles.
Gonzalez was among roughly 100 postal workers and supporters who joined the Northern California rally. Many wore T-shirts fashioned in the dark blue color of mail drop boxes and displaying the words, "The U.S. mail is not for sale."
Gonzalez said post office workers, concerned about layoffs and office closures, did not oppose expanding services. "What we'd like to see is that these Staples stores are staffed with postal workers," he said. "If you want to serve the American public, let us do our jobs."
SERVICE OUTSIDE NORMAL HOURS
Supporters of the Staples contract say the arrangement makes it easier for people to access postal services.
"It has been received well, and customers like the convenience," USPS spokesman Don Smeraldi said.
Smeraldi said the deal with Staples was made to save customers time and allow them to receive services outside normal post office hours. He said the agency, which has contracted out services to private companies before, has addressed the mail safety concerns by giving special training to the employees staffing the Staples postal stations.
Smeraldi said the program was also aimed at generating revenue for USPS, which has reported taking aggressive cost-cutting measures, including a drastic reduction in employee hours.
A Staples spokesman declined to comment on the protests or the contract with USPS.
"We are currently operating a pilot program in select stores that is testing specific services and offering added convenience for our customers," Staples spokesman Kirk Saville said in an emailed statement. "As a matter of policy, we don't provide details on our pilot programs or on our agreements with vendors."
The yearlong pilot program was launched in 82 Staples stores in California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. USPS intends to expand the service to more Staples locations, Smeraldi said.
Following the San Francisco rally, protesters said they would gather in San Jose late Tuesday afternoon. After that, similar demonstrations would be staged around the country, said Michael Evans, 60, a union leader who has retired from his job of 32 years as a Pasadena postal distribution clerk.
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