SALT LAKE CITY — Inside a plain, warehouselike office building filled with rows of cubicles, Melissa Stark stares at the image of an envelope on a computer screen. The handwriting is barely legible and appears to be addressed to someone in the “cty of Jesey.”
“Is that a 7 or a 9 in the address?” Stark said to no one in particular. Then she typed in a few numbers and a list of possible addresses popped up on her screen. “Looks like a 9,” she said before selecting an address, apparently in Jersey City. The letter disappears and another one appears on the screen.
“That means I got it right,” Stark said.
Stark is one of the Postal Service’s data conversion operators, a techie title for someone who deciphers unreadable addresses, and she is one of the last of a breed. At one time, there were 55 plants around the country where addresses rejected by machines were guessed at by workers aided with special software to get the mail where it was intended.
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But improved scanning technology now allows machines to “read” virtually all of the 160 billion pieces of mail that moved through the system last year. As machines have improved, workers have been let go, and after September, the facility here will be the post office’s only center for reading illegible mail.
“We understand that these remote encoding centers were planned as a temporary fix,” said Barbara Batin, the center’s operations manager, using the facilities’ formal name. “They were created and deployed with the knowledge that new technology would eventually put us out of work.”
But for now, this center operates 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. More than 700 workers stare at images of letters, packages, change-of-address cards and other mail, trying to figure out where they are supposed to go. It is not easy work. With software, a knowledge of geography and more than a little intuition, an operator has exactly 90 seconds to move each piece of mail.
When mail-sorting machines around the country encounter addresses they cannot read, an electronic image of the bad handwriting or faded address is transmitted to operators here, who view them and try to fill in the missing information by typing in a letter or a number. Once corrected, the information is returned to the processing plant where the mail is sent on to a local post office, ultimately ending up where it is supposed to go.
“We get the worst of the worst,” Batin said. “It used to be that we’d get letters that were somewhat legible but the machines weren’t good enough to read them. Now we get letters and packages with the most awful handwriting you can imagine. Still, it’s our job to make sure it gets to where it’s supposed to go.”
Over the years, the Postal Service has become the world leader in optical character recognition — software capable of reading computer-generated lettering and handwriting — sinking millions of dollars into equipment that can read nearly 98 percent of all hand-addressed mail and 99.5 percent of machine-addressed pieces.
That was not always the case. In the beginning, people sorted mail. As the volume and variety increased, the post office turned to automation. But the machines could read only about 35 percent of the mail at first and had trouble with handwritten addresses. So the Postal Service set up the centers, using people to supplement the scanners. At the height of the program, in 1997, the centers processed 19 billion images annually, about 10 percent of all mail at the time, the post office said.
In the past year, this center, and the one in Wichita, Kan., that will close in September, deciphered 2.4 billion images, or a mere 1.5 percent of the mail, the post office said.
Speed is important. Each worker in this nearly football-field-length room is expected to process about 1,200 images an hour, and they average three seconds an image.
“Not everyone can process all the types of mail that we get,” said Ruth Burns, a group leader who sits in the middle of the sprawling room watching a bank of computer screens. “Some people are better at reading handwriting. Some are better at reading faded addresses. It varies.”
Rita Archuletta, who has worked at the center for 16 years, said
that over the years she had seen her share of impossible letters, like the one addressed to the house “down the street from the drugstore on the corner” or one intended for “the place next to the red barn.” Still, she said bad handwriting was the worst. “And most of the bad scribble seems to be coming from people back East,” she said with a smile. “They really can’t write.”
Back at Stark’s workstation, the image of an extremely faded letter with no discernible address appeared on the screen.
She zooms in. “Is that a ZIP code in the corner?” she asked, staring at the image for a few seconds.
Finally, she hit the reject button. The letter will be placed in a bin back at the mail processing plant where someone else will try to figure out the address by physically examining it.
“There are some things even we can’t read,” Stark said as another image popped up.