You’ve got mail!
The mailroom continues to be the heart of the Brandeis community.
It’s a sunny Wednesday morning and you have two classes before 1 p.m. and a class at 2:30 p.m., enough time to squeeze in lunch with your friends. You foresee the microwavable mac and cheese from your freezer being your dinner for tonight, while you attend your Zoom lecture with your camera turned off. You got the “DO NOT REPLY You have received a Package” email this morning — you're expecting your Amazon package today — some clothes that you saw on a TikTok and your favorite chocolate that you can’t find at the Hoot Market. You figure, you can pick up your package in between class and lunchtime, stuff it in your backpack, and open it when you get back to your dorm. You head to the Usdan Student Center, stand in a short line, swipe your ID card and wait. You see the mailroom workers look at some computer, call out a number, disappear for two seconds, and come back with your package in hand. You say “thank you,” and just like that you go up the stairs and get on with the rest of your day. This is the level of interaction that many Brandeis students have with the mailroom. But what goes on behind the curtains of the Brandeis mailroom? What stories do the workers behind the plexiglass have to tell?
When COVID-19 hit, people began relying more heavily on mail services for almost every basic necessity, and the Brandeis community was no exception. To learn more about their unheard stories, the Justice spoke with Paul Morrison, Client Service manager for Swiss Post Solutions at Brandeis, and Angela Palmarozzo, supervisor of Mail Services at Brandeis, on Oct. 16 with masks on and socially distanced in the mail breakroom.
Morrison and Palmarozzo gave me a tour of the entire mailroom, and I was surprised to see how many different rooms and spaces there were beyond what students see from the counter where they pick up their packages. Storing the items that the whole University relies on to be delivered to them involves acute organization and a team of hard workers who are there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, opening and closing a little earlier and a little later than their contracts require them to.
“We’re in charge of the receiving and distribution of all the student packages and mail for the entire campus,” Morrison said. “Students come to the mail center and pick up packages after swiping at the kiosk, we offer a drop off service supporting UPS/FedEx/DHL and [we] support the other administration offices all around on campus.” His team has about 85 mail stops around campus, he explained, from the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Admissions Center to the various lab areas to support the needs of the Brandeis community.
The mailroom uses a software called SC Logic to keep track of all the packages. Since Swiss Post Solutions joined Brandeis in 2018, they have processed an estimated “200,000 packages … with a less than 1% loss,” Morrison proudly stated. He highlighted how technology and data fuel the way the mailroom determines what needs are being met and what changes need to occur.
Palmarozzo described the vast amount of change that she had witnessed over her four years of working in the Brandeis mailroom. “Previous to 2018, we didn't have a kiosk. We had an older, much less efficient software setup and we literally had to look up every ID by hand, and when you’ve got a line full of people and the first person has so many packages, everyone behind that person will be waiting a while,” she explained. I had heard stories from other students of a time where lines were up the stairs of Usdan, and it was now very clear why that used to be the case. “With Swiss Post, things started changing immediately. It was a very noticeable difference from day one,” said Palmarozzo.
Today, waiting in line for packages is quicker, even with a much higher demand. The mailroom had seen a 12% increase in packages since last year, despite only half the population of students currently living on campus. The high demand has required the mailroom to take on an additional two staff members.
Within the last 6 months, Palmarozzo witnessed the mailroom transforming entirely during the pandemic. Both Palmarozzo and Morrison discussed their crucial role at the beginning stages of the pandemic since the mailroom was the one thing people could rely on for some semblance of normalcy. “Over the spring and summer some of the students who couldn't go home for various reasons … were spending their time living in the dorms and coping by online shopping, so we’d see the same 20-30 people on a very regular basis,” Palmarozzo said. For the students who couldn't go home in March, the mailroom workers were some of the only people they were seeing for months. The mailroom employees were their link to family and friends who were miles away and would send them care packages of sorts, or material objects that reminded them of home during a stressful and difficult time. While I continued to converse with Palmarozzo and Morrison, I began to recognize the powerful relationships that the mailroom has with the entire Brandeis community, as they shared their personal stories and interactions with students and parents.
Palmarozzo told me the story behind the box of Dunkin’ donuts I had seen sitting on a counter when I entered the back door of the mailroom. “[It’s from] one of the students. He’s doing classes from home this semester and asked us if we could send his things that were still coming here. Today one of his friends came by with a FaceTime and he basically had his friend drop off a dozen donuts! It was the sweetest thing!” This story was such a feel-good moment, and it sparked even more stories, laughs and reflections of how ingrained mailroom services are at Brandeis.
“We get the kudos and recognition not just from the students but the parents [too], you know. They send us chocolates — it's unexpected,” Morrison said. The mailroom often gets calls from parents, students and faculty about sending mail and packages, Morrison explained, and they will guide everyone through the process step-by-step — everything from how to write their mail address to how much it would cost to ship items. This semester in particular has seen an increase in interaction with parents who wanted to send their kids items to make them feel better, whether they were quarantined or just homesick.
Once in a while, the exchanges between students, the mailroom employees and their parents occur under funny circumstances. “We do a lot of rerouting for families because mom ordered a patio set and it shipped to Brandeis, because the last things she ordered shipped to her son or daughter. Mistakes happen, but today’s technology provides an easy fix,” Morrison explained. “Yesterday there was a student that came to pick up six barstools and two tables, and I looked at him and he said, ‘Yeah, mom mis-shipped it.’” We all laughed as he told this story — it was such a relatable mishap. I recalled calling my own mother before she ordered her Amazon package to make sure it was being shipped to our home address rather than my Brandeis address. So the next time your parents order a new couch for their living room, perhaps you should remind them to double-check the address that it is being sent to, or you could be receiving an unexpected package from the Brandeis mailroom!
This year is also unique for students and mailroom employees alike because for the first time ever, the majority of voting is being conducted via absentee ballots. “We have 4,000 mailboxes, and today and for the past several weeks the focus has been on the ballots,” said Morrison. Accusations about President Donald Trump’s attempt to undermine mail services by opposing the Democratic proposals — which would have provided $3.6 billion to states to run elections and $25 billion in aid to the postal service — leaves the postal system in an insecure position during this time of great uncertainty. In addition, his surplus of Twitter posts against mail-in voting that claim that “allowing people to vote by mail will result in a CORRUPT ELECTION” and become the “SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES” creates widespread confusion, derailing confidence in our democratic processes among voters. It has become clear to all citizens who are voting that their vote is under more pressure and risk than ever before.
College students depend on mail services every year to vote while they are away from their home states. According to the Brandeis Factbook demographics, in fall 2019, student enrollment included 1,946 students from the Northeast, 432 students from the South, 352 students from the West and 144 students from the Midwest. With such a diverse range of domestic undergraduates studying far away from home at Brandeis’ campus, their votes depend on mail. Accessibility is key in our current circumstances, and college mailrooms everywhere are the go-between for students to exercise their civic responsibility and constitutional right to vote, especially since in-person voting has been discouraged due to COVID-19. “We’re seeing a ton of ballots everyday, and students are bringing them back the same day in many cases because everyone wants their vote to count, and we want everyone to at least have the option to vote in the election,” Palmarozzo said.
Many international students also have the mailroom workers to thank for their services. “With a lot of international kids, this is their first time in the States. So when they’re trying to do their tax documentation or their visa papers, they have a million questions, [and] we’ll take the time to spend with them going through every step of the process: this is the envelope, this is the address and this is how much it will cost you to get it there,” Palmarozzo said.
Morrison also shared a story involving the graduates of 2020, where the mailroom was involved in a huge project with University Services to send every graduate their diploma by mail. “We had an inquiry of how to send a diploma to [places like] the Democratic Republic of Congo — some places that just don't see deliveries from us everyday. We have to look carefully at the locations that we’re shipping to. In some places there are active wars, civil wars going on,” said Morrison. “Yes, you’re a graduate, but how do we get your diploma to you? You’re in a country and in a position where you can’t receive anything right now.” Brandeis has a large percentage of international students — 20% international student body in the 2018-2019 school year — so students, faculty and staff members are immersed in an environment where they consistently learn about diverse perspectives and cultures.
“There are few things that were constant throughout the pandemic, and the mail was definitely one of them. The mail is the lifeblood to everything that I’ve seen,” Morrison declared, recognizing the essential role that they played for the Brandeis community. The pandemic, which has forced such stark changes, has been a learning experience for the mail room especially. Morrison discussed some of the future plans and preparation that are already under discussion for next semester. Morrison described how recognizing QR codes — which are utilized by the GET mobile app — is the next foreseeable step to replace card swipes and further limit any touching-surfaces scenarios.
We also discussed Amazon's impact on how people online shop. More and more, both Morrison and Palmarozzo have observed an increase in grocery orders from Amazon Fresh and Amazon Pantry. “Amazon has changed the way people are doing everything. Amazon delivers to the post office, we pick up from the post office. It is redefining what is going where." He predicts future changes and how the mailroom will accommodate them: “I think [grocery deliveries are] going to be a growing business for us, and we’ll have to support it with additional refrigerators. According to Morrison, whether Brandeis acts on this or not, will depend on the data from students’ grocery ordering trends.
But Morrison’s statement about the mail being "the lifeblood" that holds our campus together is not merely a way to highlight the literal, necessary tasks that they undertake: the delivery of crickets to science labs, the calls with the Fine Arts department to send their students supplies, the conversations with Brandeis parents to send their kid baked goods from Zabar's, the sending of packages to student athletes working out from home, the transferring of COVID-19 testing supplies to test sites on campus, etc. They are “the lifeblood” because they support the heart of the Brandeis community. They are a part of the emotional connectivity that people associate with the mail and packages that they receive.
“People are still smiling — we can almost see their smile through their masks when they get their packages,” Morrison said. Palmarozzo continued on that idea, saying, “And to know that we’re a part of something that makes them so happy, it just warms your heart.” As thankful as the Brandeis community is for our mail workers, they, too, are thankful to be at a place that fosters such strong bonds of community while keeping everyone safe during the pandemic. “I drive around this campus everyday. I see the social distancing, I see people standing in line six feet apart. To be part of the safety net that we have … it's not one person, it’s everybody,” Morrison said.
To be significant, to be a part of something, isn’t that something we all strive for and work toward? Isn’t that something we all wish for? “When COVID just started happening, we had students check up on us to make sure we had masks. We are behind the scenes, but we are part of the Brandeis family,” Morrison said with a smile. To have this strong sense of connection during a time of such upheaval, struggle and uncertainty, certainly is telling of Brandeis: our home away from home.