SIOUX CITY -- As many as 40 union employees at the U.S. Postal Service distribution and processing facility in Sioux City -- which closes permanently Friday -- could get paid for the next 3 1/2 years without working a day.

That's to the tune of $1.72 million, not including benefits, for the 3 1/2 years if they all stay on, thanks to the four-year postal workers' union contract signed in May.

Richard Watkins, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service Kansas City District, which includes Sioux City, said that some of the 100 employees from the Sioux City processing center have already taken jobs elsewhere within the postal service. Watkins said all workers, including the approximately 40 now on "standby" status, will have to eventually take another job with the postal service before their contracts expire in 2015.

Until they accept new assignments, however, those workers could be asked to report to the downtown Sioux City Post Office each day. There, they would sit in a room until they're called on to do something. That could include filling in at a small-town post office or on a carrier route.

But Sioux City Postal Workers Union Local 186 executive officer Jim Price said sitting around wouldn't sit well with him or his co-workers. They'd rather be working.

The facility has been through an evaluation study -- although employees and local leaders say it was flawed -- and is among about 200 of its 260 peers and 500 smaller sorting facilities targeted for closure in a system-wide downsizing of USPS facilities. The closures are triggered by decreasing quantities of mail and technological advances in handling it.

For months now, the union members, Sioux City leaders and the business community -- which together successfully fought off the center's closure in 2006 -- have clung to a thinning thread of hope that the facility could be pulled back from the brink once again.

A postal service Area Mail Processing, or AMP, study that helped pave the way for the closure found that moving the processing center's functions to Sioux Falls would save $2.8 million annually. Price told the Journal the $2.8 million in savings does not take into account the $1.7 million the postal service may have to pay workers on standby for the next 3 1/2 years. 

Sioux City's hopes of saving the processing center were renewed earlier this week when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., inserted language into an annual appropriations bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee that would suspend the consolidation of mail distribution and sorting centers. Its focus was Quincy, Ill., but it included any center that had not had an AMP study that showed "no significant cost savings or efficiencies."

According to Price, Sioux City's postal system generated profits of $320 million in the last fiscal year.

"We are so efficient here, we make money," he said. "What other business shuts down when it's making money?"

The Siouxland Chamber of Commerce and city leaders have also been working to keep the facility open and met with senior USPS officials to discuss it. Chamber President Chris McGowan said in a statement Friday that the chamber supports the postal service goal of becoming more efficient but believes the consolidation process is "seriously flawed."

He said the fact the postal service continually modifies its plan is evidence that "it doesn't have a complete grasp of the scope of the problem or the solution. Our community and political representatives continue to assert that Sioux City's mail processing facility should remain operational while the USPS develops a comprehensive national strategy," McGowan wrote.

Mayor Mike Hobart said Thursday that the city had discussed suing the USPS in hopes of reversing its decision but didn't think that would work. He praised Iowa 5th District Rep. Steve King, as well as Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin for their efforts to save the facility.

Harkin said in a statement that he supports Durbin's call to halt closures until it can be certain the closings will yield cost savings. "My concern is for these communities and the job loss these consolidations will cause," he said.