STAMFORD -- The U.S. Postal Service will consolidate Stamford's Processing and Distribution Center with operations in Westchester, affecting 349 positions at the West Avenue postal center in a move USPS is projecting would save $15.6 million annually.

The consolidation will not occur before May 15 because the USPS is complying with a moratorium on postal service closures to give Congress time to consider legislation affecting the industry, USPS regional spokeswoman Christine Dugas said Friday.

Dugas said she did not have data on how much mail is processed at the West Avenue postal center, which she said services ZIP codes beginning with 066, 068 and 069.

Business mail entry units in Stamford, where local businesses drop off large mailings for processing, will not be included in the consolidation.

Stamford's postal center on 427 West Ave. employs about 400 mail clerks, handlers, sorters and other personnel. First-class mail, packaging and all other classes of mail processing will be consolidated with a Westchester center 12 miles away, Dugas said. The move, if it overcomes union opposition and proceeds as planned, will affect about 350 Stamford positions.

"Although positions may be eliminated, it does not mean jobs would be lost," Dugas said. "So far, the postal service is proud to say that in our history, we've been able to handle these positions through attrition."

The American Postal Workers Union's contract prevents USPS from laying off employees at the Stamford center. If the consolidation goes through, West Avenue postal workers who do not wish to retire or leave the postal service will likely be offered postal positions within a 50-mile commuting distance of Stamford, Dugas said. If workers are asked to move beyond the 50-mile radius, they will be provided with relocation benefits.

Karen Schneider, who has worked at Stamford's Processing and Distribution Center for 39 years, said she will probably retire if the postal service offers employees a worthwhile departure package. Schneider, a Stamford resident, works 3:30 p.m. to midnight sorting letters.

"It's a very physical job," she said. "You lift all day."

She said she loves her work schedule because it gives her free time in the morning to work in her yard. She said she was sad to hear the distribution center might close, but understands the agency is moving toward consolidation.

"We're a family because most of us have been here for at least 20 years," she said. "But we have to admit that we have to consolidate in order to stay alive. It is time. It's heartbreaking, but you have to go with the flow."

Stamford and Wallingford are the only distribution and processing centers scheduled for consolidation in Connecticut, Dugas said. A nationwide decline in postal service usage is forcing consolidations across the country. First-class mail volume has gone down 25 percent since 2007 and is expected to drop another 25 percent over the next several years, Dugas said.

"It's unprecedented," Dugas said. "In some situations, we have machines that are only sorting mail for a few hours a day because that's how much mail they have. If we consolidate operations, we can run the machines all day and gain efficiencies there. It just makes sense to re-examine our infrastructure to make the needs of today's mailing industry meet the needs that we have."

Cheryl Ingstrum, vice president for the American Postal Workers Union Local 240, which represents the Stamford Processing and Distribution Center, said the union is working to keep the West Avenue center open.

"Consolidating the plant will do nothing but hurt the customers," Ingstrum said. "Their mail will be delayed, maybe up to a week."

News of the possible consolidation has put stress on the mail center's employees and their families, she said.

"People don't know where they're going," she said. "Just because the machines are going to Westchester doesn't mean the people are going there. So it's frustrating and a little cruel because management hasn't told them what's going to happen."

Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the national American Postal Workers Union, said decreasing mail volume is not the cause of the USPS's financial problems. The industry has become overburdened by the requirements of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which requires the postal service to prefund health care benefits for future retirees, she said.

"This law is the cause of the problem," Davidlow said. "There's no way that slashing service and destroying jobs and hurting the local economy is the solution to the postal services' problem. The postal service has to get corrections from Congress. We are asking people to call their congressmen and tell them to keep the plants open."

U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., released a statement criticizing the merger.

"News of the United States Postal Service's intent to close two of Connecticut's three mail processing plants could not come at a worse time," he said. "As the state economy struggles to create jobs, the last thing we need is the loss of hundreds of postal positions and delivery delays for customers and businesses -- both of which would occur if the Wallingford and Stamford mail processing plants are shuttered as planned."

Kate.king@scni.com; 203-964-2263; http://twitter.com/kcarliniking