Hill Telegram: Western Union Branch to Stay Open
Western Union has reversed a decision to close the doors at its last remaining Capitol Hill branch in the Cannon House Office Building.
The company had planned to shutter the office for good Friday because of insufficient revenue but did an about-face. A company spokeswoman said late Friday that the decision was “not finalized” and the company was “working through some business issues.”
The three-person staff was told Tuesday that the office — located in Cannon 242A — had received a 30-day reprieve and would likely stay open indefinitely, said Senior Clerk/Courier Don Lawson.
Western Union’s earlier decision to close the office caught House officials by surprise, as they were not informed of the move ahead of time, said a House source.
Employees learned of the move when they informed their regional supervisor in early February that the branch would likely be moving to the Longworth House Office Building in March. They then received a letter Feb. 7 explaining that their last full day of work was scheduled to be Feb. 28.
The office has not been able to conduct business since computer connections were suspended Thursday, said Lawson. Connections will likely be restored this Thursday.
Dave Martin, Western Union’s director of operations for commercial messaging, said the tiny branch has been in the red since at least 2000.
“We’re losing about $80,000 a year out of that site, and we can’t afford to keep it open anymore,” Martin said in a telephone interview last week.
Martin said then that even keeping the very minimum of two staffers on board was no longer feasible.
“We need at least $100,000 in revenue to come out of the site to cover their salaries,” he had said.
Lawson said that Western Union recently signed a contract with a third party guaranteeing it at least 100,000 pieces of mail per year. As of press time, Wendy Carver-Herbert, Western Union’s vice president for corporate communications, had not returned phone calls seeking confirmation of the contract.
But Lawson said the office is slated to receive high-speed computers that will allow it to process large volumes of incoming telegrams as part of the deal.
The office plans to restart mail service deliveries within the next few weeks, he said.
Martin said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had affected the branch’s message business, noting that the office has not delivered a single message since September 2002.
“With the new [security] procedures it’s not that easy to get messages to the Hill,” he said.
At one time, Lawson noted, the office delivered between 1,000 and 5,000 “hot letters,” or personal opinion messages, per day to the Hill. But in part due to post-Sept. 11 restrictions on messages arriving from an off-site printer, these had tapered off.
As a result, in recent months the office had dealt almost exclusively with money transfers, which, Martin noted, have never been very lucrative and were continued as more of a courtesy service to Hillites.
“If they have encountered that as a problem they never approached House officials about it at all,” said the House source, adding that officials hope to strengthen the lines of communication to make sure situations like this don’t happen again.
Western Union has had a long relationship with the Hill, delivering its first telegram to the Capitol in 1851. At varying times it has had offices in the Capitol building as well as every House and Senate office building with the exception of Hart, Lawson said.
Initial reports of the closure sent frissons of shock through the staffers and Members who rank among the office’s Hill devotees.
Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) used the office to send money to his daughters at college and would often visit with the staff, said his communications director, Devona Dolliole. After hearing of the planned shutdown, Jefferson’s office called Western Union to inquire about the decision and was told the company was “very, very interested in keeping it open.”
Kim Fuller, a legislative correspondent to Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) who relies on the office’s money-transfer service to receive child support from her ex-husband, was particularly heartened to hear that the office would remain in business after all.
“That’s such great news,” she said. “It’s nice to see the underdog win for a change.”