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Dec 13

Swift completion of their appointed rounds, behind the scenes at a mail sorting center

Al Clement of Lompoc keeps his eyes on the mail as it goes through the sorting process. Although machines handle, cancel and move the mail, human eyes must scan each piece to assure proper routing.
©Ken Chen/Telegram-Tribune published Feb 25, 1981

Computers cut the number of jobs needed to hand sort mail. Later they cut the number of pieces of mail when folks began to send e-cards and connect on social networking sites.
But you still need humans to deliver the mail.
I am not sure if this system has been replaced by another technology but ever since seeing this story three decades ago I make an effort to make my zip code handwriting legible.

Ted Jackovics wrote the story published Feb. 25, 1981:

Letter sorting machine operators scan zip codes, then type information into a computer, one-fifth of a second to read, four-fifths of a second to type. They have a choice of six radio stations to listen to via headphones while they work. ©Ken Chen/Telegram-Tribune published Feb 25, 1981

Postal army
In an age of computers it still takes people

A 15-cent journey across San Luis Obispo can mean a 200 mile round trip to Santa Barbara.
That is what happens to a letter dropped into a United States Postal Service box.
Because there are two computer guided letter sorting machines at the mail processing center in Santa Barbara, that is the most cost-effective path for first-class mail to take, postal officials say.
Computer age technology notwithstanding, the heart of the county’s mail sorting system is a small army of $10-an-hour workers in a huge warehouse-type building near the Santa Barbara airport.
Jobs preparing mail for the letter sorting machines at the area mail processing center would seem to be the fate of those who disregarded every bit of advice their teachers and parents ever gave them.
Yet, the man with a master’s degree but no job in music, the woman who wants to earn and save enough money to open her own ceramics shop, and the supervisor who has spent 11 years with the Postal Service — all take a measure of pride in overcoming the pressure of working against the clock under the everpresent scrutiny of a computer that records every mistake they make.
“It really irks me that the public thinks we don’t care in here,” said Ed Segal, who earns $30,000 as a shift supervisor.
“I get a complaint once in a while that a letter takes three days to get from California to Virginia. Put 15 cents of gas in your car and see how far you get.”
The jobs are tedious, everyone admits.
Some workers ensure that mail passes properly over a series of conveyors and through mechanical stations that post mark envelopes and stand them face forward before rows of operators.
The operators sit silently in front of the giant letter sorting machines, which are adorned with bright blue and orange murals of the Old West and outer space to add some color to the concrete building.
These operators read zip codes on envelopes that are placed before them for one-fifth of a second.
Then they have four-fifths of a second to punch a code that triggers the letter sorting machine into action.
If the operator punches the proper code — They are accurate 98 percent of the time — a letter addressed, for example, to San Luis Obispo is mechanically whisked into one of 41 bins.
Then the sorted letters are packed into boxes that are returned by truck to San Luis Obispo, where letter carriers on the city’s 41 routes put them into the sequence of their rounds.
About 350,000 of the 1.3 million pieces of mail that pass through the Santa Barbara facility each day are bound for or have come from San Luis Obispo County.
Taking both local and long-distance mail to Santa Barbara and running it through the machine saves the Postal service money on jobs that would be necessary to sort the mail entirely by hand, officials said.
More than 90 jobs were eliminated at the San Luis Obispo post office when the Santa Barbara station was phased into operation.

Clerk Michele Lipman of Santa Barbara gathers mail that has been sorted into bins by machine and arranges it in trays for next step in processing.
©Ken Chen/Telegram-Tribune published Feb 25, 1981

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  4. J.J. Simmler, postmaster
  5. Swift-Aire, San Luis Obispo’s own airline