Mail sorting business provides jobs for disabled employees
PITTSFIELD, Mass. (AP) — In 1998, Berkshire County Arc set out to create a mail sorting company that would create jobs for some of the disabled individuals they work with and provide a cost-saving service for small business in the community.
Fast forward two decades, and about 11 million pieces of mail from nearly 240 businesses in multiple states pass through Zip ’N Sort Mail Services each year.
“Here we are 20 years later and we’re the largest mail sorting business in Western Massachusetts,” said Paul Gavrity, Berkshire County Arc’s vice president of administration, days before the company’s platinum anniversary.
On Thursday morning, Gavrity and Zip ’N Sort general manager J.G. Ivy walked through the Taconic Park Drive warehouse greeting some of their 34 employees, 17 of whom have mental or physical disabilities, while they stuffed and sealed envelopes and prepared to deliver packages to the Pittsfield post office.
BC Arc serves children and adults with developmental disabilities, brain injuries and autism through their 40 group homes and other community-based programming. More than 120 of the individuals they serve hold jobs in the community, according to Ken Singer, the agency’s executive director. Adults who are not yet ready for the competitive workforce but want to work can apply to Zip ’N Sort, where they will receive job training in an environment where they will be overseen by team leaders who can assist them with their needs.
Every day, employees use two BC Arc vans to pick up mail and packages from businesses across Western Massachusetts and bring it to the mailroom to be sorted.
By having a company sort its mail before it’s sent, either manually or by a machine, a company can save on postage. Some clients even opt to send PDFs of the documents by email to be printed right at the mailroom, stuffed into envelopes, and delivered to the post office.
“We do soups to nuts,” Gavrity said.
The savings for the many businesses, schools, municipalities and nonprofits that use the service is usually about 3 to 6 cents per envelope, according to Gavrity.
“If you’re sending (5,000) to 10,000 pieces a week, those pennies add up,” he said.
Overall, the business brings in about $3 million in revenue each year, but after salaries and expenses it tends to break even, administrators said. In especially good years, it brings in a little extra money that is rolled into BC Arc’s overall budget, Singer said.
Much has changed in the mail business since the late 1990s. Worldwide there has been a decrease in daily mail, but lately Zip ’N Sort has recently seen an increase in “fulfillment,” or prep of heavier packages.
Postal regulations are always changing and Ivy keeps in close contact with the post office to stay up to date with the latest ins and outs to postage and labeling.
“The Pittsfield post office is very good to work with,” Ivy said.
Early on in the venture, leadership made a conscious decision not to advertise the company as one that employs those with special needs because their disabilities bear no weight on their work ethic or the quality of service that they provide, Gavrity said.
And businesses don’t sign up for the service out of charity, Singer said. They do so because it saves them money.
At the warehouse, where high-tech machinery is surrounded by pallets filled with packages and envelopes, employees worked away.
Karen Drosehn, a team leader, sat at a long table teaching two individuals how to put several pieces of unstapled mail into one envelope and seal it, a change from the work they were used to doing.
A few feet away, sat Brian Ellsworth, who has been working at the company for 14 years.
“I really enjoy doing the CDs and the posters,” Ellsworth said about preparing mail to be shipped. “Lately, I’ve been going much faster.”
Most of the Zip ’N Sort employees have been with the company for at least a decade and some of them hold other jobs in the community.
Marc Dunn, of Cheshire, leads a busy life that includes two part-time jobs, recreational clubs and community service.
“I like working down at Whitney’s Farm, too,” the 32-year-old said.
While providing jobs to those who may not otherwise find employment is embedded in the mission of the integrated company, it’s still a business, and every employee, disabled or not, has expectations to meet in order to earn their paycheck, Ivy stressed. Everyone is treated equally, but Ivy and Gavrity do their best to place individuals in stations that bet fit their abilities.
“It’s not a bunch of special needs folks sitting in a room and looking at each other,” Ivy said. “They want to work.”
The best employees are the ones who are flexible and can complete varying tasks at the company. Most of them can, Gavrity said.
Ivy said he didn’t apply for his position at Zip ’N Sort because he had a desire to work specifically at an integrated business, but rather because he needed a job that fit his skill set.
But working with these individuals, many of whom come in each day eager to work, with a smile on their face, brings him a job satisfaction he didn’t anticipate.
“If I do well and this business does well, then I go home having helped 17 people,” Ivy said.
Information from: The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle, http://www.berkshireeagle.com