Foster-Walker building. Photo by Emma Chiu / North by Northwestern

For Foster-Walker and Kemper package center employees, the last month has been especially hectic: Due to a combination of increased package arrivals and understaffing, employees are working overtime and even briefly closed the package center last week.

“If there isn’t a line out the door, there’s bins and bins and bins of packages in the back room and in the front that would have to be shelved,” said sophomore and Foster-Walker employee Hannah Travali-Peacock.

Aside from an increase in the number of students on campus, an increase in purchases contributes to the high package volume, said Thomas Roberts, the supervisor of the Foster-Walker and Kemper package centers.

“Package volume is increasing globally,” Roberts said. “We also see things that we deem to be more ‘comfort purchasing,’ so things like clothing items, bookshelves, things that people are [buying] to make their dorms a little bit more homelike.”

Roberts also said multiple buildings – including three North Campus buildings, three sorority houses and three buildings that were uninhabited last year due to the pandemic – have been added to the Foster-Walker and Kemper package centers’ purviews, which has increased the number of students’ packages that go through the centers.

Since Sept. 7, Foster-Walker alone has processed over 23,000 packages. According to Roberts, who has worked at the package center for more than five years, this is a marked and unprecedented increase from previous years. On a normal day in previous years, the package center would receive between 200 and 500 packages; now, the center receives anywhere from 500 to 1,000 packages per day.

The package center expects to see a decline in package arrivals after the residual rush of move-in passes, but understaffing isn’t helping matters, Roberts said.

Due to internal processes for new employees, the package center has yet to replace all of last year’s employees who have graduated or stopped working at the center. Now, employees work alone or with just one co-worker. That often results in too few employees to handle a regular quantity of package arrivals, let alone the recent influx. To compensate, Roberts has asked his employees to sign up for after-hours shifts, which involve two to four additional hours of processing packages.

Roberts added that Foster-Walker and Kemper are experiencing delays in processing new packages — while packages were previously scanned within 24 hours of the center receiving them, a small number now sit in the back room for up to three days.

Student response to these delays has been mixed. Though most students have been understanding and patient regarding new conditions, some have responded aggressively, with Roberts reporting that multiple employees reported harassment both at and outside of work.

“As their direct supervisor, I’m here to support [employees] in any way that I can. I’m not always around to see when that kind of thing does happen, but I messaged all of my student staff to let them know that I am supportive of them,” Roberts said. “We do have a plan in place to report any students who cross that line of harassment.”

Sophomore Ian Gamiere, a Foster-Walker package center employee, said that students sometimes fail to acknowledge the people behind the center’s work. Gamiere pointed out the Northwestern Affirmations Instagram page’s post about Pitney Bowes, the processing system that the package centers use, as an example.

“They’ve been posting [affirmations] like, ‘Pitney Bowes will receive my package.’ It’s just sort of a disconnect with what’s actually happening,” Gamiere said. “People see the email from Pitney Bowes and they’re like, ‘oh, that’s just some sort of system that’s going on.’ But every time you receive an email from Pitney Bowes, that’s an actual person scanning in your package.”

Both the Foster-Walker and Kemper package centers are working to alleviate the pressure on employees and meet their internal benchmark of having all new packages scanned within 24 hours of arrival. Roberts said he is in the process of hiring new employees to return to regular staffing levels.

“It’s a Catch-22: We’re so busy that we need people, but we’re so busy that it’s difficult to find time to hire people,” Roberts said. “But, I do have 17 new [employees] on the way, as well as a few more [I’m] extending offers to pretty soon.”

New equipment meant to streamline package processing is also expected to arrive soon, Gamiere said, including a third computer in addition to the two currently used to scan new packages.

According to Gamiere, adjusting to the increase in package volume has taken time, but the new routine and expectations are starting to set in.

“At one point, we were trying to navigate in between these packages and sometimes almost tripping over packages,” he said. “But after a little bit, you get to the new normal, and you realize that this is how it’s going to be now.”

Travali-Peacock, the sophomore and Foster-Walker employee, said that, although difficult, the experience has caused employees to grow closer over the past month.

“Everybody’s really overwhelmed and frustrated at the moment with the amount of packages and the general atmosphere of how worried we all are about getting everything together,” Travali-Peacock said. “But at least towards each other, [there’s] a sentiment of like, ‘we’re all doing our best.’ It’s stressful for all of us and an interesting kind of solidarity.”