Mail services within government entities have always been labor-intensive operations with manual sorting, stacking, and traying of both inbound and outbound mail. Because of the change in how states run elections, this manual work has never been more important. Unfortunately, besides causing a surge in mail volume, COVID-19 also impacted mailroom staffing. Governments had to handle the work while some of their experienced employees were sick at home. Finances were strained as well, as local governments dealt with the combination of COVID-related expenses and lower tax revenue because of commerce shut-downs. Some government entities were better prepared than others. Local, state, and county governments that embraced automated mail sorting and processing technology reduced the impact of fewer employees working fewer hours. Automation provided a way for state and local governments to keep up with the demand for mail services and deal with budget cuts and a labor shortage. Other labor-dependent government mail operations struggled. Mail Services Needs a Digital Workflow Digital workflows have the potential to reduce costs, often while boosting customer satisfaction. Private businesses adapt quicker than government agencies and have revolutionized their workflows with digital automation. Though governments have made progress in moving some repetitive, labor-intensive functions to online services, opportunities to digitize processes still exist. Government workers spend more time providing personal customer service than their private industry counterparts, driving up labor costs. A Harvard Business Review study estimated that it costs between $7 and $13 for every live service a government provides. Digitization and automated transactions could yield vast savings. Digital Mail Delivery How do remote government workers, whether working from home or in dispersed agencies, receive mail-in applications, correspondence, and the myriad of daily inbound government forms that need processing? The answer is digital mail delivery. In facilities that have adopted a digital workflow, digital mail technology scans the mail and archives the images on secure servers. Pre-defined business rules determine what happens to each mailpiece. It could be that the mail center opens and scans all First-Class Mail, while they set Marketing Mail aside for later physical delivery. Other mail, identifiable by the address block or other envelope markings, could be automatically routed to specialized departments for processing. The address on the mailpiece can determine the disposition of many items. In other cases, the scanning and sorting software will look up the physical location of an employee’s workspace by matching the addressee’s name printed on the envelope to an organization database. Mail for some departments may be held awaiting further instructions or packaged for courier delivery. The business rules can define many scenarios, depending on the needs of the company. Lack of Postal Knowledge Workers The talent pool of workers in the paper, print, and production mail industries has declined for years, and opportunities for industry training, education, and certification have recently dwindled. The premiere mailing industry event, the National Postal Forum, was reduced to a virtual presence for the second consecutive year because of COVID-19 concerns. Exacerbating the situation, local Postal Customer Council events, where mail training is administered, also transformed into virtual affairs. The pandemic has strongly curtailed postal training in 2020 and 2021. Grooming new unskilled employees for jobs in the mailroom has become a challenge. Automated mail sorting and processing technology reduces the level of postal knowledge required to manage inbound and outbound mail. With automation, more mail center jobs can be easily shared among available employees or assigned to temporary workers when a shortage of permanent mail center staff occurs. Vote by Mail Voter preference surveys show that vote-by-mail is here to stay. The job of accepting, validating, sorting, and counting completed ballots as they are returned will continue to be a task governments must tackle. Speed, security, and accuracy are absolutes in election mail. Fortunately, vote-by-mail technology is scalable for larger state governments as well as city and state mail volumes. Systems like Tritek’s Correct Elect solution automatically monitor the ballot acceptance process. The key to a successful vote-by-mail program for governments with labor and budget constraints is deploying automated mail center technology. Compared to human reading, sorting, and tabulating, automation is 10 to 20 times faster. Wake Up Call The COVID-19 crisis had devastating consequences for state, county, and local governments. Service cutbacks, labor reductions, and a shrinking tax base all contributed to the issues. Local governments may receive some funding from Congress but will still look for ways to recover from the pandemic’s effects. In addition, the government workforce is not what it once was. The government has often been slow to embrace technology, especially in the mail center. Now they have little choice. An environment with fewer knowledge workers and high vote-by-mail ballot volumes demands requires a new solution. Digital technology in the mail center provides an answer for the cash-strapped state, county, and local governments.
Business disruptions and delays during the pandemic stem from social distancing measures, staff illness, and people working from home. Adding to the difficulties has been a downturn in the speed of mail delivery because of postal employee illness and mail transportation delays due to cancelled commercial airline flights that normally transport mail. Unprecedented Challenges When combined with increased mortgage activity triggered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act and refinancing movement sparked by low interest rates, the workload and unusual conditions have made it more important than ever for mortgage servicers and lenders to track and account for loan documents received through the mail. Manual methods of recording when documents arrive at lender facilities and how they are delivered to departmental recipients won’t work in this environment. Employees working on customer mortgage transactions from home need to have immediate access to documents received via the mail. Mortgage industry companies are turning to systems that can turn postal mail into electronic documents they can distribute to their teleworkers. COVID-19 presents unusual challenges for mortgage lenders and servicers. They must respond to rapidly evolving regulatory requirements and could face future oversight actions. Implementing measures now, such as investing in an inbound mail processing system, could provide these institutions with vital information, should they need to document their actions. Much of the communication connected with loan restructuring, forbearance, and refinancing will take place via the US mail—an institution that has experienced its own COVID-related problems. Companies don’t want to compound mail delivery issues with slow or inaccurate processing once the documents arrive at their facilities. Risk Mitigation If history is any indication, companies with inadequate handling and processing procedures risk exposure to future class action lawsuits. This happened a decade ago during another economic crisis when large amounts of borrowers attempted to restructure loans via the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). To protect themselves from future legal issues, mortgage servicing companies will be wise to ensure they can account for all transaction details, such as verifying when and where payments and other documents were received. The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) recommends mortgage industry companies adopt some pandemic-specific strategies. Recommendations include taking steps to prevent operational disruption in the event of widespread employee infection. Automated systems that transfer mail handling and tracking duties from staff members to equipment and software would fall into this category. Digital Mail Digital inbound mail systems, such as Tritek’s Digital Email Delivery Solution feature document feeders, scanners, and sorting components. Paired with Tritek’s powerful rules engine, this system logs the receipt of mail, records images, tags mailpieces with unique ID numbers, sorts for delivery, or allows employees to receive the mail electronically. Such a solution is ideally suited to address the revolutionary changes that COVID-19 forced on the mortgage industry. Installing a digital inbound mail system helps companies control physical documents when volumes are rising and staffing levels are uncertain. Lost documents, late payments, or other issues associated with the handling of paper documents will be reduced, along with the organization’s exposure to legal or regulatory compliance enforcement. Simultaneously, a system that enables mail centers to distribute hard copies, with options to open and scan documents to make them accessible to de-centralized workers, will yield benefits even after the pandemic subsides. Many experts believe the work-from-home model made necessary by COVID-19 will become a prevalent work scenario even when health conditions improve. Mortgage lenders and servicers should take this opportunity to invest in technology that will be necessary to remain competitive when business conditions stabilize.