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Of the late-night sorts

Community: Postal workers sift and send until well after midnight to help deliver the SCV’s mail

Posted: July 31, 2010 8:35 p.m.
Updated: August 1, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Castaic resident and 25-year postal employee Jimmy Barlan moves parcels on to a conveyor as he works the late shift at the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center in Santa Clarita on Thursday. Castaic resident and 25-year postal employee Jimmy Barlan moves parcels on to a conveyor as he works the late shift at the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center in Santa Clarita on Thursday.
Castaic resident and 25-year postal employee Jimmy Barlan moves parcels on to a conveyor as he works the late shift at the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center in Santa Clarita on Thursday.
Twenty-year postal employee Mark Kasimoff drives a “mule” during his late-night shift on Thursday. Twenty-year postal employee Mark Kasimoff drives a “mule” during his late-night shift on Thursday.
Twenty-year postal employee Mark Kasimoff drives a “mule” during his late-night shift on Thursday.
Nely Inoce Ida, right, and Linda Manansala, both 27-year postal employees, sort mail at the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center during the night shift Thursday.   Nely Inoce Ida, right, and Linda Manansala, both 27-year postal employees, sort mail at the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center during the night shift Thursday.
Nely Inoce Ida, right, and Linda Manansala, both 27-year postal employees, sort mail at the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center during the night shift Thursday.
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After midnight, the roar of the machines rapidly sorting millions of pieces of mail a day was loud enough to silence any conversation.

A man’s booming voice echoed over the 36,000-square-foot workroom, calling on more than 200 employees to report to their duties.

Some tended to the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center’s machines, called “Barney” or “The Purple Monster,” that aid the postal clerks and carriers in sorting through millions of packages, letters, magazines and envelopes daily.

The work doesn’t end with the sunlight at the United States Postal Service’s processing center.

The center overlooks Highway 126 in the Valencia Commerce Center, and the massive workroom hums with employees tasked with the daily processing and organizing millions of pieces of mail that work their way from an assortment of machines and into your mailboxes.

“It takes a lot of man-hours to do that,” said Gary Aulepp, 53, a mail-processing clerk who has worked for the United States Postal Service for 31 years.

The Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center is responsible for mail in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys.

In the last five years, the center has picked up additional regions, including Oxnard, Bakersfield, Pasadena, Mojave and Santa Barbara, he said. In total, the center takes care of about a third of Southern California’s mail and handles up to 6 million pieces of mail a day, he said.

The 65-acre location off Franklin Parkway opened in May 1995 after the service ran out of room in its Van Nuys location, he said.

Sorting mail is a 24-hour process and takes place in a center that never shuts down for holidays.

“The place never closes,” Aulepp said.

Up to 75 people work during the day. Another 150 people are on the swing shift, and more than 200 postal employees work the graveyard shift at night.

The center is so big that it houses its own maintenance center with 400 employees who ride bicycles along the concrete paths and tend to equipment failures and machine breakdowns.

Overlooking the floor are a series of enclosed walkways marked by two-way mirrors. It’s there that postal inspectors silently keep an eye on employees to ensure that all mail is properly handled and nothing goes missing.

The mail starts its journey to your mailbox from the center’s back docks, where it goes through a rough sort. Throughout the night, employees feed the mail on a variety of machines that cancel postage, screen, issue identification bar codes and even take digital pictures.

There’s even a section of the workroom for the 3 percent of the mail that just can’t be processed by the massive machines. Whether it’s sloppy writing or a misshaped envelope, a group of employees spends its nights processing these pieces by hand.

Postal employees have seen their share of wacky postal items: balloons, rocks, food and even a camera that asked workers to take photos of themselves as they delivered it.

“I get to do something different everyday,” Aulepp said. “I like going in and knowing I’m doing something good for the public.”

Employees like Aulepp don’t mind working nights. In fact, he prefers it — he takes the graveyard shift even though he has the seniority to demand a daytime post.

For other employees, the shift is over in the early morning, enough time to have breakfast with the family and take the kids to school.

Aulepp says he’s been spoiled by having his days open for whatever he wants to do, whether it’s appointments or relaxing.

“I can do all that during the week,” he said. “I don’t have to be a weekend warrior.”

And there’s no such thing as a rush-hour commute for graveyard shift workers like Aulepp.

“You go to work,” he said, “and I go to sleep.”

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