USPS facility on its busiest mailing day of the year

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NEW YORK - DM News received an inside look at the inner working of the U.S. Postal Service at the Morgan Processing and Distribution Facility in Manhattan on Dec. 18, the agency's busiest mailing day of the year.

Americans placed more than 900 million pieces of mail with the USPS on Dec. 18 - an increase of about 230 million in volume over the average mailing day. Dec. 20 is the busiest delivery day of the year, according to the postal service.

The USPS also said it is seeing a dramatic increase in holiday mail to military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the first 14 days in December, there were 12 more 747cargo aircraft dispatched with mail to the Middle East than during the same period last year. That is almost a lift of the contents of a 747 every day.

Last year, the agency delivered more than 10.5 million pounds of mail to military installations overseas during the holiday period. This year, more than 16 million pounds of mail have been delivered since Nov. 1.

How does all of this get processed and delivered? Through the hard work of the 700,000 USPS employees across the country, including postmasters, retail clerks, letter carriers, distribution center employees and call center operators. These employees work at 37,000 post offices and stations, and 269 processing and distribution centers. They also collect mail from 15 million post office boxes, blue street collection boxes and 251,038 delivery routes.

The Morgan facility is the largest of it kind in New York. It handles all types of mail. We were given a guided tour of First-Class Mail preparation, since this constitutes most of the mail handled and cancelled, or post-marked, this week.

Here's how the operation works: When a letter is dropped into a mailbox, it lands in a plastic tub at the bottom of the receptacle. A postal worker picks up the tub and transfers the mail to a cloth bag. This bag is loaded on a truck and taken to the closest post office that prepares mail for processing.

That mail is trucked to the first floor of the building, where postal employees dump it into bins.

It was fascinating to see the large amounts of mail being dumped and how the postal service accounts for each piece. (If one letter fell on the floor, for example, a postal employee immediately would pick it up.)

The mail is then immediately sent on its way via a conveyer belt - which stretches five miles throughout the facility - to a machine that will sort it called an advanced-facer canceller machine.

This is a machine that arranges letters so that the address sides face the same way. It cancels the mail with a wavy printed line and prints the postmark onto each letter. The postmark shows the date, city and state where the letter is cancelled.

The advanced facer-canceller system sorts the mail into two groups - local and outgoing. The local mail, obviously, is sent and received by people in the same ZIP code. The outgoing mail is destined to anywhere else. This mail is then sent via the conveyer belt to delivery bar code sorters, which is equipment used primarily by the USPS to sort mail by bar codes printed on the envelope.

Mail handlers sort though mail that didn't run properly through the machines. The mail, for example, could be too thick to be automated, but it has to be sorted because there maybe pieces that can be automated but just stuck behind the thicker pieces. It was fascinating to watch this at work and realize how labor-intensive this can be.

We also got the chance to tour the nerve center, also known as the central control room. Here, employees are tasked with tracking flow of the mail on the equipment on the floor.

Big computer screens splashed with a colorful graphic of a grid greeted us as we entered, and a friendly mail flow control explained how the grid, or proprietary USPS software, works.

Different colors mean different things, he said.

For example, if part of the grid was colored blue, that means an area is full, so the mail could start to back up. Employees in the control room can contact employees on the floor via two-way radio to let them know about the backup.

The mail flow coordinator said that everything works like a finely tuned machine, and that he was ready for the busiest day of the year. He also said it would start to get really busy starting around 6:30 p.m. (Our tour took place from 4 to 5 p.m.)

Throughout the visit, postal employees-including clerks, who operate the equipment and mail handlers, who do more labor-intensive work, seemed happy and excited to have the media there. They truly seemed to enjoy their jobs and be part of this operation, especially on the busiest day of the year.

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