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Mail never stops moving at the Ellicott City post office. Letter carrier Dave Colbert began his shift last week on a windy, 21-degree morning inspecting his van before loading it with boxes and bins. The 58-year-old said he was “in for a cold one” and climbed into the driver’s seat, a holiday workload of 648 deliveries stacked behind him.

As one of Howard County’s larger post offices,the Ellicott City office handles between 150,000 and 200,000 pieces of mail every day, according to postmaster Howard Hines, and averages between 5,000 and 7,000 packages, also known as parcels – a number that triples over the holidays.

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“This time of year, we have 15,000 to 18,000 parcels per day, which is exceeding what we had around this time last year by 20 percent,” Hines said. The station typically reaches the 15,000-mark the week before Christmas, but this year hit that number the week before Thanksgiving.

The Ellicott City branch, located at 3375 Ellicott City Drive, has 48 city carriers and 60 rural carriers, Hines said, including part-timers, who work four- to eight-hour days. Inside the warehouse-sized mail room, 25 clerks take mail through an obstacle course of scanning and sorting, organizing postcards, letters, flats and parcels by route and rural or city destinations.

Letters and flat mail are differentiated by size, and include large envelopes, newsletters and magazines. Holiday mail swaps off-white envelopes and brown boxes with brightly colored letters and festive wrapping paper.

“In November and December, the number of parcels are greater and with the manpower we have, we might have to work a little bit longer,” Hines said. “Between October and January is the busiest time of year because a lot of people are ordering gifts and we get returns after Christmas.”

A preview of holiday concerts around the area including Columbia Pro Cantare, Columbia Pro Cantare Chamber Singers and the Columbia Orchestra.

Automation has sped up the sorting process since the mid-1990s, he said. Intake slows between January and early June, but picks up in the summer with catalogs and school packages. Carriers put in “extra leg work” during the holidays, said Hines, who arrived at the post office at 6 a.m. on Dec. 13.

That brisk December morning, some carriers began their routes at 8 a.m., while others started between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to deliver high-value packages before residents left for work. Colbert, a Clarksburg resident, said he started his deliveries at 7 a.m. and returned to the station an hour later to prepare for his usual route on the other side of Route 40, behind H Mart grocery store.

“My route is near the office, so I don’t think it’s necessary for me to get here that early,” Colbert said. “For those who are farther away, they need to get a jump earlier before the traffic starts.”

Colbert is a city carrier, meaning his route includes businesses, office parks, high-rises and gated communities. Rural carriers venture to the outskirts of Ellicott City, he said, where there is more farmland. City carriers are paid a flat hourly rate, while rural carriers are paid by distance traveled.

Before entering the field in 1995, Colbert said he worked in retail, but saw the postal service as a good way to enter the middle class and receive benefit and retirement opportunities. Colbert has had the same route for the past 14 years, which he said allows him to get to know his community.

“You get to see people up close regardless of their stage in life,” Colbert said. “I look to make them happy, but at the same time, I stay in my lane. I don’t judge. You also follow certain patterns; some people are always gone on vacation or I know to be alerted if Miss Gladys doesn’t come and get her mail at a certain time.”

HeartLands Village at Ellicott City, a retirement community, was Colbert’s fourth stop that day, when he greeted the receptionist with a smiling face and a chipper, “Good morning!” The carrier placed some parcels at the front desk and then walked around the corner to the building’s mail room.

Colbert used his keys to open the other side of the residents’ mail lockers — about 180 total — and scanned a few bar codes above them.

“This lets the post office know I’m still moving and how much of the route has been done,” he said. For the next 40 minutes, Colbert glanced at the mail in his hands and put everything in the appropriate locker.

Colbert said there are several factors that contribute to incorrect deliveries and people receiving someone else’s mail. He said carriers might receive new, unfamiliar routes or a resident’s new address might not have been updated at the post office.

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“Then, there’s the person just not paying attention,” Colbert said. “I think about how I wanted to be treated. No one wants to think that they’re being slighted.”

On the other side of the mail lockers, resident Jane Rodgers smiled at Colbert and said carriers and residents share “the same goodness.”

“We can help each other if we see somebody standing there that looks like they need assistance,” Rodgers said.

Long days

Colbert said what became the “hardest job ever” when he started 22 years ago evolved into a fun, simple job for those who “aren’t afraid of hard work.”

Postal workers tend to “cringe” this time of year as holiday gifts roll in and they know longer hours aren’t far behind, he said. After all, the job isn’t done until everything has been delivered that day.

“I start early, but my days are longer. You become exhausted, but some part of it is always fun because everyone is looking for those delivered presents [for holidays] from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa,” Colbert said. “I’ve been telling my customers that the whole month of December is one long day. The big difference is the packages and the urgency of when they’re delivered. People are on edge. It seems like every year it gets harder.”

Regardless of the season, dogs and delivering in the dark are two consistent safety concerns for carriers. Colbert learned some tricks of the trade, like shaking keys to see if a dog is loose or carrying a flashlight, but he said carriers always ask customers to lock up their pets and keep their outdoor lights on if they are expecting a delivery.

He said the unofficial creed of the U.S. Postal Service also rings true: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Whether it’s a harsh winter or scorching summer, Colbert said they still have a job to do.

“ ‘Blustery’ is the word the weather service used to describe tonight,” said Colbert, wearing six layers of clothing and a head warmer. “When I hear that word, I go heavy on top. You have to protect yourself.”

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Around noon, Colbert proceeded to his next stop at the Enclave at Ellicott Hills, a gated adult community. Unlike his prior stop, mail lockers were outside in white kiosks. The wind picked up, but Colbert still had a smile on his face.

“I like the outdoors. If I had to stay indoors, I would’ve definitely looked for another job,” he said, laughing. “Not everybody is built that way.”

Colbert then delivered packages that could not fit in the mail lockers to residents’ front porches, including the home of Bill Kotwas.

“I was in the hospital and I missed you,” said Kotwas, who opened the door to shake hands with Colbert. “Thank you for doing a good job.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m glad you’re feel better,” Colbert replied.

After wishing each other happy holidays, Colbert walked back to his van.

“That’s what it’s all about. That’s the thing that I like since I’ve been a carrier.”

As technology advances with more automation, Colbert said carriers could become “the milkman of yesterday,” but until then, he will maintain the same level of commitment and pride for each delivery.

“Most people are so happy and in a good mood,” Colbert said. “Fortunately, in Howard County, you meet people from all walks of live. You get a cross section of the world.”

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