Three postal services employees sat behind the service counter in the Sadler Center’s first floor, processing packages in the shadows of eight towering bins brimming with parcels.
On the other side of the desk, a mass of 50 students waited for their mail. The package processing clog Hurricane Irene left in her wake coincided with the high tide of textbook deliveries, and the postal workers were feeling the pressure.
“In all my 20 years, I have never seen it this bad,” College of William and Mary Post Office employee Mary Williams said, pointing to the cluster of students standing in line.
While the exact number of packages backlogged from Hurricane Irene is unknown, the Post Office processed more than 5,000 between Aug. 26 and Sept. 3, according to Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Dave Shepard.
“We should be caught up by the end of this week,” Shepard said.
With processing rates exceeding 1,000 by Tuesday, Post Office director Richard Sears projected a later date for when package lines would begin to ebb.
“I can tell you that processing 1,079 packages on Tuesday alone was far from normal,” Sears said. “Some of my people are saying that they have never seen it this bad. I hope that by the beginning of fall break, Oct. 8, everything will start to slow down like it usually does. I hope.”
According to Sears, the United States Postal Service delivered 781 packages Sep. 30, approximately 681 more packages than the College Post Office typically receives in a single day. When Sears left campus for the hurricane evacuation, three big bins were waiting to be processed, and four USPS bins were added over the weekend.
“The hurricane caused a bottleneck situation,” Sears said. “The system has been backlogged in the last seven years because more and more students are buying their textbooks online.”
Post Office employee Terry Ackies framed the situation numeric terms.
“Think of it this way. There is 6,000 of you all, and if each of you ordered 3 to 4 textbooks … it’s more than 6,000,” Ackies said.
To alleviate lines and textbook anxiety, three employees from the facilities staff can be seen retrieving packages from shelves.
“We have many students and people from the College coming in every day to help us,” Williams said. “We have all been working really hard. And we are one computer system down.”
In addition, the Post Office stayed open until 7 p.m. Aug. 31 through Sept. 2 and until 4 p.m. Sept. 3.
Because few students came in during the later hours, however, Sears made the decision to close the office at its standard 4:30 p.m. this week, although the staff remain until 7 p.m. each night in order to continue processing packages.
“The staff is one of the most dedicated groups of folks that basically do a good job day in and day out and they are really working hard to make it right for students,” Shepard said.
Despite these changes, both College administrators and employees confirmed widespread student frustration.
“Students have been very impatient,” Ackies said. “If they would just be patient, we are doing the best we can.”
One student agreed to go behind the service desk to search for her package once Ackies informed her it had yet to be processed, even though she had received an email notification.
“If you want to go back there and rifle through 2,000 packages, be my guest,” Ackies said.
Email notifications, according to Sears, can occasionally be tricky because they don’t tell the employee which of the four shelves for that particular CSU box the package may be on. There can also be a delay between the time emails are sent and when package slips are delivered. As soon as a Post Office employee keys a package from the bin into the computer system, an email is sent out, but it may take some time for an employee to place the package slip into the relevant CSU box.
“A lot of students are getting confused over the package slip and email,” Sears said. “They pick it up at the window with an email, but then come back with a package slip thinking they have another textbook to pick up.”
This disparity is what Sears hoped to bypass when he came up with the idea of letting students pick up their own mail in the Commonwealth Auditorium.
“I couldn’t sleep at night,” he said. “I know at this time professors are assigning three chapters and then giving exams … I wanted to do the students good … I thought they would be gung-ho about it.”
To meet the textbook delivery demand, Sears said only packages carrying textbooks, distinguished by their bookseller labels, were placed in the auditorium. Most packages in the auditorium were delivered Aug. 25 or 26.
“Some students did really good dumpster diving,” Sears said. “But I didn’t receive the response I wanted.”
A lack of students coming into the auditorium did little to curb the longer lines and frustration this week.
“It worked fairly well, maybe it could be done differently and better,” Shepard said. “We are probably not doing it again because it split the staff but also because [it] didn’t work very well.”
The “dumpster-diving” system may not have been very cost-effective, Sears admitted, since he estimated his overtime stood between 12 and 14 hours.
Security concerns over the new system were minimal amongst staff and administrators.
“We had people there when students were going through packages,” Shepard said. “It is hard to take anything in that environment. They understood it was an issue, they did their best to keep security maintained.”
Students were required to leave baggage at the door and fill out a package slip after displaying a photo ID. The requirement to show an email confirmation of delivery abated after a number of students without emails desired to look through the packages.
No packages have been reported stolen or lost.
“If given the chance again, I would do it again if enough word got out,” Sears said.
Normal processing and notification systems have resumed.