Good News for Bad Penmanship:

An article appearing in the Wall Street Journal in late 2011 came to our attention and we thought we’d share the interesting subject matter with you in a piece of our own. The focus: What happens to letters addressed with poor handwriting?

Fortunately, sloppy scribes can thank 1,900 USPS clerks who work day and night at one of two Remote Encoding Centers (RECs).

Their mission: Try to make sense of terribly unreadable addresses.

Back in 1994, when 55 RECs employing 32,000 clerks were established, existing postal computerized sorting equipment could only read 2% of the handwritten addresses on envelopes. Since then, with new technological advances, postal computers are now able to read and process an impressive 93% of the mail electronically. Today, scanned images of any unreadable addresses end up at RECs in Salt Lake City, Utah or Wichita, Kansas.

Just how hard are the clarifying clerks of the RECs working? The USPS’s desired deciphering rate is 1,100 letters per hour. The procedure basically gives a clerk 30 seconds to review an envelope. If they can’t decipher it, it goes off to another clerk.  While one standout clerk, Gary Oliver of the Salt Lake City facility, has been there 3 decades reviewing approximately 30 million letters, the job is not for everyone.  Up to 20% of new hires quit within 5 weeks.  In 2010, the diligent postal clerks at the RECs examined over 714,085,866 first-class letters that the computers couldn’t read. The outcome: a significant 27% of the addresses still were unable to be read by the team of human scanners.

Those unfortunate letters get pulled out of the mail stream and are handled by one of the last “peek-and-poke clerks” at the REC. These “nixies,” a word that’s actually in the dictionary (referring to “a letter or parcel that is undeliverable by the post office because of a faulty or illegible address”) then get looked at one final time. After that, any addresses that still can’t be deciphered for delivery then head over to Atlanta’s Mail Recovery Center. What exactly is the fate of the unreadable mailings? The Georgia based center is where any letters that appear to perhaps contain cash or documents are opened. The rest of the undecipherable envelopes, are then delivered… into in the shredder!

How Mailing Addresses are Read

  • Mail bearing typed addresses goes to a Multiline Optical Character Reader (MLOCR) that reads the ZIP Code and address information and then prints the appropriate bar code onto the envelope.
  • Mail with handwritten addresses and machine-printed ones that are not easily recognized gets scanned and then the scanned image of that mail travels on to the Remote Bar Coding System (RBCS). This system also corrects spelling errors, and, where there is an error, omission, or conflict in a written address, it identifies the most likely correct address. When the system has chosen a correct address, it prints the appropriate bar code onto the envelopes (similar to the MLOCR.)
  • For any mail that the system can’t decipher, the RBCS has two Remote Encoding Centers (RECs) in place. There, USPS clerks review scanned images of the mail pieces in question and enter the address data of those envelopes they can decipher.
  • Mail that fails to get deciphered goes to the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta where it is opened for further examination or destroyed via shredder.

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