The last mile: Carriers still key in technology-driven postal service
JANESVILLE--You can hear the good humor in his voice as mail carrier Brant Yantorni leaves the Janesville Post Office to set out on his delivery route.
“It's time to make the magic happen,” he said.
The 35-year-postal service veteran embraces a daily mantra: Keep the people happy.
With the holiday rush in full swing, Yantorni is especially loaded down with packages as he makes deliveries to hundreds of homes on the city's northeast side.
Maybe you've seen him, bent slightly forward as he walks so he doesn't crash on the ice.
“I crave fish because I walk like a penguin,” he said, laughing at his own joke.
Thanks to technology, Yantorni spends less time in the post office sorting mail and more time on the street delivering it.
“When I started in this job, we had to sort everything,” Yantorni said. “It wasn't unusual to spend more than two hours easily in the office every morning. Now, the mail all goes to Madison for sorting. It seems we are getting more and more things done by machine.”
Yantorni is right.
With the approach of the year's busiest mailing day--Monday, Dec. 16--new and improved technology keeps the seasonal avalanche of cards and packages moving at a fast clip.
Much of the work is done at Madison's processing and distribution center on Milwaukee Street.
Letters, cards and packages mailed in the Madison service area, which includes all of Rock County, end up at the almost 100,000-square-foot building.
Manager Gary Kaiser reigns over the bustling operation, where the package business is booming because of online commerce.
In fact, Kaiser said, the volume of packages shot up 17 percent in 2012 during the holiday.
Nationally, the financially troubled postal service predicts a 12 percent jump. The federal agency even started working with Amazon last month to begin making Sunday deliveries in New York and Los Angeles. It plans to expand that service to other cities next year.
Closer to home, the Madison center processes about 25,000 packages daily for delivery in the service area, which roughly stretches west to the Mississippi River, north to Friendship and Fond du Lac, east to the Walworth County line and south to the Illinois border.
The number of packages will bounce up to 35,000 and even 40,000 on some days during the holiday season.
In addition to packages, the center processes about 1.5 million first-class letters daily for delivery in the Madison service area. The number may swell to 3 million during the holiday peak, Kaiser said.
But unlike packages, the volume of letters continues to drop and is expected to be down about 7 percent this year.
Still, in an era when the federal postal service is losing money overall, the Madison processing center earns its keep.
“We generate a lot of revenue,” Kaiser said. “We usually stand out from the rest of the country in the volume of mail received here.”
Company catalogs and magazines from places such as the commercial printing company Quad/Graphics are the reason.
The postal center gets two or three semitrailers of catalogs and magazines a day, with up to 10 on other days.
“In a couple of hours, you won't be able to stand here,” Kaiser said, walking alongside one of 15 loading stalls, where trucks bring in mail from all post offices in the service area and from around the country.
Once workers move letters and packages off the trucks, technology does much of the extensive sorting with little help from human hands.
Machines scan and sort the mail in a complicated process. They read the addresses on letters, translate them into bar codes and ink jet the codes onto the fronts of the envelopes. Other machines read the bar codes and sort letters according to their places of delivery.
Cards and packages for delivery outside the Madison service area are sorted and moved on to an even bigger processing center in Milwaukee. From there, they are sorted and sent to addresses in Wisconsin, the United States and the world.
Other machines scan and sort area packages and bundles of magazines according to zip codes. Later, the packages and magazines go to local post offices for more sorting by clerks and letter carriers. Packages are scanned at every stop along their journeys, which allows customers to track their progress online.
“Technology has allowed us to process more mail faster and more accurately,” Kaiser said. “The changes are humongous in our ability to process letters.”
In addition, improved technology saves time for the carriers in the post office each day. They still sort mail, but the amount is much smaller than it was in the past.
Kaiser is amazed at how much mail is processed every day, especially during the holiday.
“A lot of people entrust the mail to us and don't realize all the things it goes through to get to where it is going,” Kaiser said. “They just want to know that it gets delivered. Machines are great tools, but we will always need employees to process and move the mail on the last leg of its journey.”
Among those workers is Yantorni, who goes the final mile in December with extra cards and packages.
“A lot of people are excited to see what I'm bringing them,” he said. “I have close to 600 stops, but for each house I go up to, it is a special encounter. I have to make sure I treat the people that way.”
This time of year, residents show their appreciation to Yantorni with small gifts of cookies, fudge and even homemade cards.
At 62, he could have retired a few years ago. But he chose against it.
“I will work until I can't because I enjoy it,” he said.
“I make the magic happen every day.”