The hard-knock life of a student mailroom employee

    I work in the Willard mailroom. Those six words probably make most of you assume I’m lazy, I’m incompetent, I never show up to work, I hide your mail and I eat the food your grandmother sends you. I might even eat babies.

    Don’t fret. Not only am I a confirmed future crazy cat lady, but I’m way too broke to risk losing that high-rolling $6.50 an hour so that I won’t have to shamble all the way down the hall and into an uncomfortable plastic mailroom chair.

    The job goes something like this: You show up. You sit in aforementioned uncomfortable plastic chair. You try to do homework but resort to Facebook stalking and FreeRice. You stand up and retrieve packages from the other room. You play Tetris. You say: “No, if you don’t have a slip, we don’t have your package. Yes, I’m sure your mother mailed it three days ago. Maybe you should wait a little longer. No, we didn’t take it. Yes, of course, that’s still funny. Obviously, I’ve never heard jokes about my stealing things. You are so original. Check your own damn mailbox.”

    (If you work an early shift, add: Sort mail. Write package slips. Stack packages.)

    I can’t speak for every mailroom on campus, as I’ve never lived or worked anywhere but Willard. For all I know, the Hinman mailroom really has degenerated into an orgy of unprotected mail grabbing, as the Residential College Board’s recent complaint letter suggests. But we have three people on every shift, so there goes the “understaffed” gripe. As for not being open: It’s a funny thing, but sometimes mailroom employees attend classes. If no one is free from 2 to 3 in the afternoon, the mailroom’s not going to be open. We don’t exist at your beck and call, and we can’t make packages appear out of thin air.

    Working in the mailroom isn’t a primary commitment for most people, and when you can work, you work; but if you’ve got meetings and classes like everyone else, you can’t take giant chunks out of your weekday schedule. The shifts that can be staffed are filled, sometimes even to the point of cramming mailrooms. It’s a very small space for three people.

    As students first, mail clerks second (or third, or fourth, or seventeenth), some things will suffer. But that doesn’t mean we can’t handle the taxing task of poking envelopes into the appropriate slots and filling out package slips, then sitting around waiting for people to show up and ask for little brown parcels. (Or, as it often happens, ask us to check their mail for them. You have a key. Walk the extra three feet.)

    We do sort your mail when we get it. We even (gasp) fill out the package slips when your package arrives. So maybe the problem’s not us. Maybe it’s you.

    We can’t forward standard mail. Did you remember that you don’t live at last year’s address anymore? Does the person sending you mail know that? And if you had it sent to the wrong address Fall Quarter, your mail went home. Yes, your home. Official policy is to use the directory to find the current address and, if it’s last year’s directory, mail gets forwarded to your permanent address.

    Or possibly the problem is that we still don’t know how to teleport anything. I know, this is the 21st century, but your package may not be here the day your mother tells you she sent it. We’re not implanted with package-tracking chips once we’re employed; pay for tracking or resign yourself to agonized, uncertain waiting. It could even be that your package is stuck in UPS limbo because you’re not here to sign for it. Just like we can’t open your letters, if your package requires a signature we can’t forge it. Call UPS.

    No, we didn’t steal it. We sign confidentiality agreements reminding us that it’s a felony to tamper with someone else’s mail. I can’t even open the envelope hanging on the mailroom wall right now that’s addressed to Frances Willard. Nor do I have the smelling capabilities to be able to differentiate a box of banana bread from one full of socks.

    In RCB’s letter sent to Vice President of Student Affairs William Banis, the board made a series of seemingly reasonable requests that warrant some reply, including:

    Regular, unchanging hours for Northwestern package centers that are set each quarter.

    Done. Willard’s are 2-8. The question is not whether we have hours, but whether those hours are staffed.

    Mail and package notification slips delivered within 24 hours of delivery to campus.

    Also should be taken care of already.

    Adequately staffed mailrooms to support the high volumes of mail coming through the system.

    Is three people sitting around Facebooking enough, or would you prefer four? If so, we might need more space. And more chairs. And more money.

    Mail handled only by mailroom employees, not left in open bins.

    Also done. The only things we leave in open bins are catalogues with the wrong address on them. And it’s either that or the garbage, since we can’t forward them.

    Daily mail delivery to all campus dormitories.

    Take this one up with the U.S. Postal Service. We only sort your mail.

    Tighter job enforcement of mailroom employees.

    Managing Northwestern students is kind of like herding cats. You can’t make people show up if they don’t want to.

    Package center hours clearly posted outside each package center.

    I’m fairly certain they are. If not, make a sign. This requires a piece of printer paper and a Sharpie. Ask your friendly mail clerk if he can write down the hours and duct-tape it to the door.

    Easy student access to dorms in which package centers are located.

    Well, you could walk there. The mailrooms generally close at 8, which is when the doors lock, so it shouldn’t be hard getting in there in the first place.

    Technically speaking, all these demands are already met (or should be). Things can get lost in the execution. People can be late to work. Sure, working in the mailroom can be a slacker job and people don’t always take it seriously. But we’re there, not hiding your mail or eating your brownies; we work with what we get, and that’s really all that can be done. Now stop asking us to check your mail for you.


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