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The Bloomington-Normal people behind your postal packages

The new package-sorting machine at the Bloomington Post Office on East Empire Street.

Longtime Bloomington mail carrier Ken Kemp has seen it all when it comes to post office operations: In the decades since he started with the agency in 1973, more and more of the work requires automation.

"We used to do everything by hand — you stood at a huge casing stool and you cased everything by hand," Kemp said. "Now, everything is mostly automated, which helps a lot. With the influx of parcels that we have here ... you can't do it by hand anymore. You'd be here for years."

The level of automation has increased even further at the Bloomington Post Office on East Empire Street this year, as it's now one of seven in Illinois using a new package-sorting machine aimed at streamlining the agency's parcel delivery services.

The machine scans up to 2,000, 1-30 ounce packages per hour — and what really helps speed things up is that it carries each package via conveyor belt to an address-specific bin, which is then loaded up by mail carriers for delivery.

"The last couple of seasons, the Postal Service has started putting these in, so I believe we're up to 249 nationwide," spokesperson Tim Norman said. "In the past, this was done by people ... It would have taken several employees and several hours for people to do this manually, so it does save a lot of hours and gets the mail out to our customers faster."

During the peak holiday season, postmaster Nicole West said up to 20,000 packages can be processed each day at the East Empire Street location. Last year, when this work was done by hand, it could take workers until the mid-afternoon to get everything sorted by route ahead of delivery.

"Last year, we had to do second trips because the packages weren't done and we were just so overwhelmed with the volume of people ordering online," West, who's been postmaster for five years, said.

And that's really the biggest thing that has changed the business of delivering mail, according to both West and Kemp: Online shopping and the packages that follow it.

"The volume is horrendous — this is the second year we've seen the volume increase," Kemp said. "It's partly due to COIVD. And it's convenient."

But the convenience of online shopping depends on which perspective you have: As the package recipient, it is, certainly, handy. The person delivering the packages — depending on what they are — may have a different experience.

"There's much more physical activity involved because people are ordering coffee tables, put-together furniture. I just delivered two treadmills to a door ... and those things are not light," Kemp said. "Times have changed, things evolve. That's just the nature of the game, you know?"

The changing game (and his growing grandchildren) has prompted to Kemp, now 73, to consider how much longer he'll stick with the job.

That said, Kemp said it has been a rewarding career, though it's long since changed from the days of mostly first-class mail and magazine delivery.

"If you are on a route for any length of time with families, you know their names, their kids, just about everything because you deliver their mail," he said. "I've been privileged to walk through people's lives for 42 years."

While you could, in theory, ease the package burden on postal workers by shopping at brick-and-mortar stores when possible, both Kemp and postmaster West said consideration and kind words to those doing the delivery work will go a long way.

"We're just like anyone else: We have families, we want to get home to our families and shop like everyone else," West said. "I would like for people to know that we work hard. We work hard to get everything out to the street and to the customer in a timely fashion."

Added Kemp: "No matter what (you) order online, there's someone that's going to have to process that and bring that to (your) door. Be appreciative of that person. Give them a little, 'Hey, thanks.' That helps the carrier a lot, because they're thinking, 'Oh, gosh, I'm out here until seven or eight and nine, delivering this stuff. It's cold, my feet hurt my back hurt.' And when somebody comes along and says, 'We really appreciate what you're doing,' — well, that makes my day."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.