Deciphering Poor Penmanship

Friday, December 23, 2011 - 11:40am

Postal worker is a specialist in cracking the code of bad handwriting.

During the Christmas mail rush, it may be comforting to know the U.S. Postal Service has a building that serves as a last defense for poor penmanship.

Workers inside the Salt Lake City Remote Encoding Center spend hours going through mail, trying to decipher where the mail is supposed to go.

As a data conversion operator, Holli Apodaca's job is to figure out mysteries.

And because she is so good at figuring them out, she can solve roughly 8,000 mysteries in a single day.

"We get the worst of the worst," Apodaca said.

She and other data conversion operators don't see the actual envelops, just an image taken by a robot that couldn't read them at a processing facility somewhere in America.

"Without us, all these letters and the other types of mail we key would have to be hand-sorted, which is more time consuming and more costly," Apodaca explained.

Salt Lake City is one of two facilities doing this type of work; the other is in Wichita, Kansas.

"Right now we're doing between 4 million and 5 million pieces of mail a day," said Karen Heath, a manager at Salt Lake's Remote Encoding Center.

Sometimes, it's just the Zip code that can't be read.

Other times, the ink has smeared.

But often, it's just good, old-fashioned bad penmanship.

"We're now called ‘scribble specialists,'" Heath said. "The last two months, we have become known as the ‘scribble specialists.'"

Close to 1,100 workers decipher addresses at the Salt Lake facility, which is open 24 hours a day.

Using their computers, they can zoom in on images, rotate them - whatever it takes to get the letter mailed.

"It is nice you can get it to where it actually needs to go without having to have somebody else handle it," Apodaca said.

Of course, they also know where letters from children simply addressed to Santa or the North Pole are supposed to go.

"We know to send it to the ZIP code in Alaska," Heath said.

Workers say the volume of mail starts to slow down the day before Christmas.

Even still, there will always be thousands and thousands of letters to go through.

Their advice: Take your time when writing an address.

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