SANTA CLARITA – You drop the holiday card or bill in the mailbox and forget about it. A day or so later, someone slits open the envelope and smiles or debits your account, and you may never give a thought about how the envelope reached their hands. Multiply that by millions of envelopes. Three shifts of postal workers who toil around the clock at a regional processing and distribution center in Santa Clarita postmark an average of 1.4 million pieces of mail a day. During the holidays, they may handle an extra 200,000 pieces daily. In a barnlike building the size of about six football fields, machine operators synchronize their movements with those of machines and conveyor belts. Every task is designed to maximize efficiency because time is always of the essence. Fluorescent lights flood the space. Mail arrives from the San Fernando Valley, Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills, Glendale, North Hollywood and the Santa Clarita Valley and is routed around the world. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORERose Parade grand marshal Rita Moreno talks New Year’s Day outfit and ‘West Side Story’ remake Next-day delivery is standard for areas in the Los Angeles basin. Three days is the standard delivery time across the country. What mail carriers once did by hand is now done for the most part by the machines. “The letter carrier gets a tray of mail addressed to 501 Main Street, 503 Main Street, going down the odd side. Then it might make a turn into Flower cul-de-sac, and addresses on Flower Circle, then 517 Main Street, 519 Main Street, then the even side,” U.S. Postal Service spokesman Richard Maher said. “The machine delivers to the carrier a tray of mail sorted in the exact order he (or she) walks the route.” Before machines became so smart, it took 600 to 700 people a shift to accomplish what 375 workers do now in the Santa Clarita plant, said manager Tony Gucciardi. Today, 1,152 machine operators, 46 managers, 215 maintenance workers and 11 engineers keep the Santa Clarita operation humming. Each machine process an average of 30,000 pieces of mail an hour. Nationwide, the average daily number of mail deliveries is about 670 million. “This year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we expect 20 billion cards, letters and packages,” said Maher of the mail volume across the country. Though the extra mail weighs carriers down, it is delivered in about the same amount of time as usual, Maher said. Employees routinely work overtime to sort and deliver the extra mail. “They work until that mail is done,” Maher said. “We do not delay first-class mail.” The time of day dictates what goes on inside the Santa Clarita facility. Six days a week in the late afternoon, trucks unload mail at 59 stalls in the dock area. Clumps of mail must be separated before envelopes can fly through the machinery single-file. Five-year postal employee Victor Rios separates about 1.5 million pieces of mail a day, he said. Rios wears ear plugs to shut out the clicking, clanging, buzzing, whirring and occasional pneumatic drill-like sounds. Most of the mail looks alike to him, but a couple of times he has found wallets – likely tossed by mistake into a mailbox by absent-minded folks. He gives nonmail items to his supervisor. Machines cancel the stamps, date the mail and roughly distribute the envelopes and packages by geographic delivery zones. Workers place the mail in labeled bins and trays. Casey Fontanilla has worked in her area for six years. “It’s nonstop,” she says of the action. She arranges the 35,000-pieces-an-hour of machine-canceled mail into multicolored bins. Outgoing mail is dispatched continuously. “We don’t store mail,” is the mantra of manager Tony Gucciardi. Optical character readers spray ink bar codes on the envelopes to help the machines sort more quickly. Virtually every piece of mail is bar-coded. The software is sophisticated enough to read most senders’ handwriting and printing. Sometimes, the computer is stymied by the irregular placement of an address or an illegibly scrawled address. In a split second, a computer scans the face of the envelope and transmits the information to human operators at remote locations across the country. The operators decipher the information and transmit it back to the source, where a bar code is tattooed on the envelope. Workers wear powder blue latex gloves to keep their hands clean, to prevent paper cuts and for improved grip. Counters on machines alert managers to how many pieces of mail are processed each hour. Light stands that resemble traffic signals alert supervisors to logjams. During periodic “huddles,” Gucciardi gives workers the thumbs-up or -down on their productivity. As he monitors the scene, Gucciardi greets most workers by name. Every day, technicians pop open the machines and vacuum out dust left by all that moving paper. Some mail must be hand-sorted. Thirty-two year veteran Alan Mann had to memorize the ZIP codes of more than 1,400 California areas to qualify for the job. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, biohazard detection systems were mounted above the processing machinery as a precaution. Air is sampled inside its hood. “If it detects anthrax, it will shut down the machine and the whole plant,” Maher said. “We would notify (the hazardous materials unit) and go to into emergency status.” No anthrax has been found. After cross-country mail is processed, it is trucked to the airport and put on commercial airlines. There are few lulls. When the outgoing mail is gone, the center receives mail for Santa Clarita residents from plants across the country. Sorting machines resembling monster-sized computers are reprogrammed to sort local mail. Mail carriers may seem to have a greater air of calm than their processing center brethren, but they, too, have an imaginary time counter ticking off the seconds in their brain. “We have a certain amount of time to get our mail cased up and a certain amount of time to deliver the mail,” said Lydia Caffrey, a 16-year postal service veteran. She has delivered mail on her San Luis Obispo route for 10 years. Caffrey often thinks, “I’ve got to step up the pace a little bit.” She stares down a deadline for handing out more than 2,000 pieces of mail a day, but always makes time for people. “I would rather slow it down and talk to my customers than sit down and take a half-hour lunch,” she said. “I’m in their family pictures.” During the holiday season, Caffrey delivers more cards than anything else. Several senior living complexes are on her route, and many of her customers are 80 or 90 years old. “The cards are from people they went to grammar school with,” Caffrey said. “It just amazes me. They’re from people they may not have heard from all year.” Many people incorrectly believe tax dollars pay for postal services, but they are funded by the sale of stamps and mailing-related merchandise. The processing facility is on West Franklin Parkway, in the Valencia Industrial Center in Castaic. It was built in 1994, but damage from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake postponed its opening till 1995. A vehicle maintenance facility is also located at the site. Van Nuys district offices are also housed in the facility. Other regional plants are in Santa Barbara, Orange County, San Bernardino, Long Beach, Bakersfield, Los Angeles and in the City of Industry. If a power outage or earthquake were to shut the plant down temporarily, mail would be diverted to one of those locations. Judy O’Rourke, (661) 257-5255 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!