Tracy Goldizen – April 7, 2015
OTTUMWA — When I was a kid, I spent hours sorting baseball cards. There was no shortage of them to go through — my dad was and remains and avid card collector. “First sort, second sort, third sort” is a running family joke.
But as Patrick Shelby and I arrived at the Ottumwa Post Office for this week’s 52 Places, I soon realized that my sorting skills had nothing on the clerks and carriers of the United State Postal Service.
Michelle Nell, a supervisor of customer service and delivery supervisor, led us to the back room of the local office once we arrived and became our tour guide. Although we were there at a time we thought was bright and early, shortly after 8 a.m., we were informed that the heaviest mail sorting had already occurred. The clerks, Nell informed us, arrive at 2 a.m. to start sorting all the mail in the 525 zip code area, which means they are sorting not only Ottumwa’s mail but also Fairfield, Centerville, Bloomfield, Albia, Oskaloosa, Sigourney, Keosauqua and the smaller communities throughout the region. They are responsible for breaking down letters, flats, parcels and accountable mail, which is the mail the carriers have to sign for.
Once the clerks sort the mail by town, the mail is then loaded onto trucks to drop off at the post offices of the communities in the 525 zip code area. At this time, about 5:15 a.m., is when they start breaking down for the Ottumwa routes. Nell then brought us over to the area where the parcels were sorted for the routes, showing us the new system they have in place, where the parcels are scanned by an overhead machine and placed into a bin according to its route. The new scanning system, Nell explained, was put in place in an effort to make the sorting process easier and more efficient.
Once she walked us through the process of sorting parcels, she brought us over to where the carriers were busy sorting through the mail for their routes. They come in and begin sorting at about 7:30 a.m., Nell said. The Ottumwa Post office has 26 regular full-time carriers, four CCAs, which are carriers that help cover routes when a regular has a day off, and 12 rural carriers.
Nell walked us through how the carriers organize the mail for their routes. Each carrier has a case with individual slots representing each address on the route. The case is set up to go in order for “relays” or “swings,” which is where a carrier will park the truck, deliver a stack of mail and return to the truck. The relays are marked in the cases so the carrier knows where to start and stop. “We keep track of vacant addresses, what needs to go to a P.O. box and who’s had their mail stopped,” said Nell as she pointed out certain spaces in a case. “It’s set up to the most efficient way, we hope, to get the routes done.” Although the routes and relays are set up by management, adjustments can be made if a carrier says it’s not working as efficiently as it could be. In fact, Nell told us, management is in the process of walking the routes with the carriers to evaluate them.
When asked how many houses were on each route, there was no particular number. Routes are determined by a combination of the volume of mail and how many houses there are. There might be a route with far fewer stops, Nell explained, but the volume of mail on that particular route would be much higher than the others. Once the carriers finish casing the mail, they load it onto what is called a nutting truck to take it to the LLVs (long-life vehicles) that we’re used to seeing on the streets everyday.
When we got to the loading dock, we watched as the carriers each busily loaded their mail truck with packages, letters and more — each in their own personalized way that worked best for them. Efficiency came up again at the loading dock. Nell explained to us that the carriers have a barcode they scan when they finish dropping their case, another when they finish loading their truck and prepare to leave the post office for their routes. And they scan in when they finish particular swings. This helps them keep track of time for all the different aspects of the job in an effort to keep the carriers at eight hours a day.
And as we watched the carriers load their LLVs, the pride Nell has in the carriers became evident. “My hat’s off to them,” she said. “They have hard jobs. When they’re out there walking, they have the elements. They go through it all.” Even when the ice storm hit in February, she said, all the carriers made it in, even a couple from Batavia. “Even if they were a little late, they made it in.”
And the day doesn’t end for the carriers when they deliver that last piece of mail. Once they’ve finished with their routes, it’s time to pick up the mail from the blue mail boxes we’re all familiar with. “But,” Nell said, “they have to wait until the time that’s posted on the box to collect it.” Once they’ve collected the mail, it’s brought back to the post office for sorting. “When it’s light, it’s nice,” Nell noted. “When it’s heavy, it’s a nightmare. But we have really good people here. They’re dedicated.”