How the Post Office Deciphers Bad Handwriting

Neither snow nor rain nor bad handwriting will stop the post office from delivering mail. But how exactly does the postal service deal with bad handwriting?

With humans. Lots of them.

Barry Newman of the Wall Street Journal tell us what happened to the letters whose addresses are deemed indecipherable by the post office's automated sorting machines:

Computers have since learned to see words in scrawls and squiggles the way voice-recognition software hears them in hemming and hawing. The Postal Service says their reading score today is 95%.

What's left over is the handwriting from hell. It pours into just two remaining RECs—here and in Wichita, Kan. Their 1,900 clerks cope with machine-unreadable mail from the whole country. Last year, that included 714,085,866 chicken-scratch first-class letters.

In late afternoon, when volume peaks at the Salt Lake center, a blinking panel showed 67,000 letters awaiting attention—from San Juan, Paducah, Los Angeles, Kokomo. A clerk wearing a headset had hit a patch of pen-pal letters from pupils in Memphis. She was decrypting them at a rate of 800 per hour, down from the desired 1,100.

"We ought to teach kids how to address letters," said Bruce Rhoades, a manager looking over her shoulder. His boss, Karen Heath, stood watching beside him and sighed, "A lost art."

Link (Photo: Barry Newman/The Wall Street Journal)


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I was a plank holder at the Chattanooga REC. We had one city, Atlanta GA. The letter mail goes through high speed sorters. The mail that cannot be deciphered has images taken that are sent to a REC. The images come up on a computer monitor where the operator types in codified address info. This info then goes back to the originating city where it gets paired up with the particular envelope. A bar code is sprayed on the front and then it goes through another high speed sorting machine where it gets sent on it's merry way. Is truly amazing how the REC data gets put on the correct envelope. We're talking 100's of 1,000's of pieces of mail. When images are taken to send to the REC each envelope has a unique bar code put on the upper back so the data from the REC can find the right envelope. If you get an envelope that has a bar code sprayed on the front flip it over. Look along the top edge for the identifying bar code. It's kind of an orange color, can be very hard to see. If you do see one that tells you it went through a REC. The code is not the same as the POSTNET bar codes used to sort the mail on the front.

A few tips to really speed your mail.

1. Use ZIP +4, 5 digit ZIP codes are almost worthless.
They will slow it down since it has to go through a REC. You can get any ZIP +4 codes off the USPS.gov site.

2. Please use block letters instead of script if you
hand write the address.

3. I know it might be nearly impossible but try not to
use red envelopes for your Christmas cards. They are truly murder for the high speed sorters to read the addresses from. Even the REC operators have a terrible time with them. The article even mentions them. Yes I know they look real Christmassy and all but do you want the card delivered in a few days or a week or more? If you absolutely must use a red envelope maybe you could stick a white address label on it that you've hand written or printed with a printer. A lot of label programs can also print out POSTNET bar codes which is a terrific added benefit. Windoze Word is one.

Hope your eyes haven't glazed over! I can really get into bar codes. GGGGG

Ooops, a plank holder is a person that's part of a ships commissioning crew. I was at the Chattanooga REC when it opened back in 1994. She was shut down a few years ago. I think they were handling around 20 cities then.

BTW the reason the price for stamps keeps going up so often is simple. The unions are destroying the PO just like every other industry they get into. That and the outrageous bonuses the supervisors get annually simply for doing their job. 99% of the working stiffs at the PO really do try their best to deliver the mail quickly & accurately.
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