The crunch time before Christmas: Behind the scenes at the postal distribution facility in Melville

Mail handler John Boyd reached into a tipped metal bin with a pole to give gravity an assist in toppling a jumble of plastic-wrapped and cardboard packages onto a conveyor belt.

“It’s crazy today,” Boyd, 48, said Monday evening, one of the busiest days of the year at the U.S. Postal Service’s Mid-Island facility in Melville. “Volume’s good,” he said as he swept out the harvest. “That means everyone’s doing better out there moneywise.”

If Santa’s North Pole operations were visible to the public, the sights and sounds might closely resemble the hubbub of machines and movement at 160 Duryea Rd. 

Typically, the busiest day of the year is on a Monday before Christmas — that’s because Mondays are the facility’s busiest day of the week since it operates at reduced capacity on weekends and because people want to make sure their mail gets where it’s going before Dec. 25, USPS spokeswoman Amy Gibbs said. Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, so the busiest day could be either Dec. 12 or 19, she said. 

The processing and distribution center was prepared to handle more than 1.2 million letters and 240,000 parcels over 24 hours beginning at 7 a.m. The USPS hired 70 seasonal workers to help with the holiday onslaught alongside 1,300 regular workers at the Melville facility. In this mechanical garden of gears and wires and traffic lanes — where anything that can be automated is automated — it’s still the human touch that keeps everything flowing.

“We just sort whatever big size we throw in the jumbo over there,” Boyd said, motioning to an oversized cardboard box called a “gaylord.” Big packages go to Bethpage during the holiday crush. “All the other stuff just goes straight up.”

The belt pulled a choked torrent of parcels upstream away from Boyd, about 15 feet above the floor where more sets of hands turn their labels — and barcodes — right-side up so the system can scan them, and automatically transported them down a belt that sorts them into giant boxes assigned to their next stop at another postal facility.

The plant operates 24/7. Workers take one of three shifts, called tours, each lasting eight hours. Boyd was scheduled to work four hours on packages and then finish his shift on postcards.

The pandemic shift toward online and mail-order shopping has boosted holiday business at the mail facility. On Monday evening, the Melville machines were running full tilt to handle the load.

“Everybody’s got to try to get it done early to receive it on Christmas,” Boyd said.

The Postal Service categorizes mail into letters, flats — such as magazines or catalogs — and parcels. Their journey in the sorting and distribution center begins at the docks, where semi trucks drop off mail picked up from post offices.

The facility handles all letters, flats and first-class packages in Suffolk County as well as outgoing letters and magazines from Nassau County. Outgoing packages greater than 13 ounces are processed in Bethpage. At midday the docks are quiet, with schedules above the openings announcing what’s yet to come.

By 7 p.m., wave upon wave of mail washes into wheeled containers that take tidings of joy or drain plugs or anything else to spots like Boyd’s or others, depending on their category. Motion descends upon the floor, belts and bins like a mist swirling down this lane to that corner, and back again, amid the endless hum of the machines.

As consumers have turned to email over letters, and websites are serving up sales and products faster than a paper catalog can, mail volume has plunged. Total volume fell from 159.8 billion pieces in 2012 to 128.9 billion in 2021, according to the postal service.

But as mouseclicks compete against malls for shopping dollars, the volume of packages delivered by the post office has shot up, with the postal service reporting volume more than doubling to 7.6 billion pieces in 2021 from 3.5 billion in 2012. The pandemic gave that steady uptrend a big boost, as package volume increased by 17.7% in 2020, with 7.3 billion parcels compared with 6.2 billion the previous year.

“Two years ago, we definitely spiked with packages” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, said John Onken, senior plant manager. “I don’t think anybody went to a shopping center for two years. Everybody learned, my mother learned, how to use Amazon.”

This year the Melville plant added a new package processor called a Single Induction Package Sorter, or SIPS, that can sort packages into 200 bins based on destination ZIP code. Workers place the parcels on the belt by hand, face up, so they get scanned and automatically sent to their destination as the machine records their processing. This allows senders and recipients to check a package’s location via a tracking number.

“We have more firepower than last year,” Onken said. “We figured if we plan for the volume of last year and with the ‘downsloping’ in the economy … we’d be in good shape.”

Getting ready means hiring and training seasonal staff on the machines “so we have good capacity of people,” he said. They also make sure the building is cleaned  and organized and that all equipment is ready to go.

“We’re going to get hit with volume at some point, which … starts to back up and we’ll have to process through the evening,” Onken said. “The goal is to be ahead of that as long as possible.”

On a normal day, the facility processes about half a million letters a day and workers finish by 11 p.m., said Anthony Williams, distribution of operations supervisor. 

“It’s a heavy mailing day,” Williams said on Monday. “We’re expected to cancel about 1.7 million. At the rate we’re going we should be done by 2 [a.m.].”

In postal lingo, “cancel” means when a stamp gets postmarked as it gets processed. Letter volume that day came in at 1.4 million, Gibbs said on Thursday.

Williams said they’re staffed up and ready for extra volume.  

“Mail comes in, mail goes out,” he said. “We have a lot of mail coming in the building today; a lot of it’s going to leave on time.”

Mail handler John Boyd reached into a tipped metal bin with a pole to give gravity an assist in toppling a jumble of plastic-wrapped and cardboard packages onto a conveyor belt.

“It’s crazy today,” Boyd, 48, said Monday evening, one of the busiest days of the year at the U.S. Postal Service’s Mid-Island facility in Melville. “Volume’s good,” he said as he swept out the harvest. “That means everyone’s doing better out there moneywise.”

If Santa’s North Pole operations were visible to the public, the sights and sounds might closely resemble the hubbub of machines and movement at 160 Duryea Rd. 

Dennis Owen has worked at the Melville facility on Duryea...

Dennis Owen has worked at the Melville facility on Duryea Road for 35 years. Credit: Howard Simmons

Typically, the busiest day of the year is on a Monday before Christmas — that’s because Mondays are the facility’s busiest day of the week since it operates at reduced capacity on weekends and because people want to make sure their mail gets where it’s going before Dec. 25, USPS spokeswoman Amy Gibbs said. Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, so the busiest day could be either Dec. 12 or 19, she said. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The Mondays before Christmas — this year Dec. 12 or 19 — are the busiest day of the year at the U.S. Postal Service’s Mid-Island facility in Melville.
  • The USPS hired 70 seasonal workers to help with the holiday onslaught alongside 1,300 regular workers at the facility on Duryea Road.
  • The facility handles all letters, flats (magazines or catalogs) and first-class packages in Suffolk County as well as outgoing letters and magazines from Nassau County.
  • More than 1.2 million letters and 240,000 parcels were estimated to be handled over 24 hours at the facility beginning at 7 a.m. Dec. 12.

The processing and distribution center was prepared to handle more than 1.2 million letters and 240,000 parcels over 24 hours beginning at 7 a.m. The USPS hired 70 seasonal workers to help with the holiday onslaught alongside 1,300 regular workers at the Melville facility. In this mechanical garden of gears and wires and traffic lanes — where anything that can be automated is automated — it’s still the human touch that keeps everything flowing.

“We just sort whatever big size we throw in the jumbo over there,” Boyd said, motioning to an oversized cardboard box called a “gaylord.” Big packages go to Bethpage during the holiday crush. “All the other stuff just goes straight up.”

The belt pulled a choked torrent of parcels upstream away from Boyd, about 15 feet above the floor where more sets of hands turn their labels — and barcodes — right-side up so the system can scan them, and automatically transported them down a belt that sorts them into giant boxes assigned to their next stop at another postal facility.

‘Everybody learned how to use Amazon’

Packages are sorted into bins for delivery at the U.S. Postal...

Packages are sorted into bins for delivery at the U.S. Postal Service facility in Melville. Credit: Howard Simmons

The plant operates 24/7. Workers take one of three shifts, called tours, each lasting eight hours. Boyd was scheduled to work four hours on packages and then finish his shift on postcards.

The pandemic shift toward online and mail-order shopping has boosted holiday business at the mail facility. On Monday evening, the Melville machines were running full tilt to handle the load.

“Everybody’s got to try to get it done early to receive it on Christmas,” Boyd said.

The Postal Service categorizes mail into letters, flats — such as magazines or catalogs — and parcels. Their journey in the sorting and distribution center begins at the docks, where semi trucks drop off mail picked up from post offices.

The facility handles all letters, flats and first-class packages in Suffolk County as well as outgoing letters and magazines from Nassau County. Outgoing packages greater than 13 ounces are processed in Bethpage. At midday the docks are quiet, with schedules above the openings announcing what’s yet to come.

By 7 p.m., wave upon wave of mail washes into wheeled containers that take tidings of joy or drain plugs or anything else to spots like Boyd’s or others, depending on their category. Motion descends upon the floor, belts and bins like a mist swirling down this lane to that corner, and back again, amid the endless hum of the machines.

As consumers have turned to email over letters, and websites are serving up sales and products faster than a paper catalog can, mail volume has plunged. Total volume fell from 159.8 billion pieces in 2012 to 128.9 billion in 2021, according to the postal service.

But as mouseclicks compete against malls for shopping dollars, the volume of packages delivered by the post office has shot up, with the postal service reporting volume more than doubling to 7.6 billion pieces in 2021 from 3.5 billion in 2012. The pandemic gave that steady uptrend a big boost, as package volume increased by 17.7% in 2020, with 7.3 billion parcels compared with 6.2 billion the previous year.

“Two years ago, we definitely spiked with packages” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, said John Onken, senior plant manager. “I don’t think anybody went to a shopping center for two years. Everybody learned, my mother learned, how to use Amazon.”

Mail in, mail out

Shannon James places packages on a new processor called a Single...

Shannon James places packages on a new processor called a Single Induction Package Sorter, or SIPS, that can sort packages into 200 bins based on destination ZIP code. The machine scans and automatically sends the package to its destination as it records the processing, which allows the package to be traced via its tracking number. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

This year the Melville plant added a new package processor called a Single Induction Package Sorter, or SIPS, that can sort packages into 200 bins based on destination ZIP code. Workers place the parcels on the belt by hand, face up, so they get scanned and automatically sent to their destination as the machine records their processing. This allows senders and recipients to check a package’s location via a tracking number.

“We have more firepower than last year,” Onken said. “We figured if we plan for the volume of last year and with the ‘downsloping’ in the economy … we’d be in good shape.”

Getting ready means hiring and training seasonal staff on the machines “so we have good capacity of people,” he said. They also make sure the building is cleaned  and organized and that all equipment is ready to go.

“Two years ago, we definitely spiked with packages” as a result...

“Two years ago, we definitely spiked with packages” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, said John Onken, senior plant manager at the U.S. Postal Service’s Mid-Island facility in Melville. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

“We’re going to get hit with volume at some point, which … starts to back up and we’ll have to process through the evening,” Onken said. “The goal is to be ahead of that as long as possible.”

On a normal day, the facility processes about half a million letters a day and workers finish by 11 p.m., said Anthony Williams, distribution of operations supervisor. 

“It’s a heavy mailing day,” Williams said on Monday. “We’re expected to cancel about 1.7 million. At the rate we’re going we should be done by 2 [a.m.].”

In postal lingo, “cancel” means when a stamp gets postmarked as it gets processed. Letter volume that day came in at 1.4 million, Gibbs said on Thursday.

Williams said they’re staffed up and ready for extra volume.  

“Mail comes in, mail goes out,” he said. “We have a lot of mail coming in the building today; a lot of it’s going to leave on time.”