USPS hub hums on year's busiest day

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NEW YORK - DM News received an inside look at the inner workings 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.

All this mail gets processed and delivered through the hard work of the 700,000 USPS employees nationwide, including postmasters, retail clerks, letter carriers and distribution center employees. They work at 37,000 post offices and stations as well as 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 its kind in New York. It handles all types of mail. Several reporters were given a guided tour of First Class Mail preparation, as this constituted most of the mail handled and canceled, or postmarked, last 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 transfers that 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 sent immediately 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 canceler machine. This machine 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 canceled.

The advanced facer canceler 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. Outgoing mail is destined to anywhere else. This mail is then sent via the conveyer belt to delivery barcode sorters, equipment used primarily by the USPS to sort mail by barcodes printed on the envelope.

Mail handlers sort through 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 might be pieces that can be automated but are just stuck behind the thicker pieces. Watching this process at work makes one realize how labor-intensive this can be.

We also toured the nerve center, also known as the central control room. Here, employees track flow of the mail on the equipment on the floor. Big computer screens that were splashed with a colorful graphic of a grid greeted us as we entered, and a friendly mail flow controller explained how the grid, or proprietary USPS software, works.

Different colors mean different things, he said. If part of the grid were 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 around 6:30 p.m., soon after our tour ended at 5 p.m.

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