The weather outside is frightful, but Deb Mortensen the Owatonna mail carrier remains ever so delightful.

Despite waking up and reporting to work well before dawn, then assisting in the sorting of an alarming amount of parcels for the holiday season, Mortensen continues through her route with a smile on her face and a bounce in her step as she delivers package after package after package to the doorsteps of her customers. After 23 years with the U.S. Postal Service, Mortensen has seen a lot of changes.

“Everybody used to get catalogs – if you ordered from one place, you all of a sudden were getting 10 to 15 catalogs,” Mortensen said with a laugh. “But the big thing were those JCPenney catalogs that you would get for the spring/summer, fall/winter, and the holidays. Everybody got those catalogs, so when you were out walking around with 20 to 30 of those in your bag, it was a lot.”

Mortensen said catalogs are now pretty much a thing of the past, but she has seen other trends like the rise and fall of holiday cards, the decline in first class letters and routes expanding by nearly double. Regardless of the various ways her job has changed throughout her tenure, though, Mortensen said nothing could have prepared employees of USPS for 2020.

“Pretty much this whole year, starting when everything began shutting down, we’ve been in a typical holiday package surge,” Mortensen said. “Now with the actual holidays here, it’s even crazier.”

According to Mortensen, in the pre-COVID-19 days, she would deliver anywhere from 60 to 70 packages on her daily route not during the holiday season. Throughout COVID-19, she said her daily package count has ranged between 100 to 250 packages. With the holiday season underway, Mortensen said it’s been impossible to keep track of how many packages she delivers in a day, but she’s confident it’s up to five times as many as she was delivering this summer.

“I came in early [Tuesday] and delivered about 50 packages, but I still have an entire hamper over there and a big pile around my case,” Mortensen said. “We have clerks coming in at 2 a.m. to help sort through packages, and by 6:30 a.m., I’m out doing just a package run before even starting to case my normal route. And that’s OK – we all want people to get their gifts.”

Jane Guse, postmaster for Owatonna, said the amount of packages coming through the post office can only be described with one word: tremendous. On the Saturday before Christmas, Guse said the Owatonna postal carriers delivered 6,700 packages – and it wasn’t even close to their biggest day this holiday season.

“It’s been steady all year, but on Dec. 7 is when it seemed to really switch on and we’ve been just unbelievably busy,” Guse said, adding she has to have 16 carriers on staff on Sundays just to deliver Amazon packages. “The postal service across the nation is doing record volumes, and I am lucky because we have fantastic employees that are so devoted to the customer and the postal service as a whole – we couldn’t do it without being a team here.”

Though the holiday season is unlike anything either woman has ever seen before, the entire COVID-19 pandemic has shone a new light on the professions they have dedicated their careers to.

“We are essential workers,” Mortensen said. “Some people might not realize it, but we really are. We are delivering medications, household supplies, and things just like toilet paper and paper towels that people are ordering by the cases to their homes.”

An emotional Guse gushed with pride as she admired the way every employee at the Owatonna Post Office has stepped up to the challenges the pandemic has brought to their doorstep, overcoming them with nothing but positivity together.

“Since COVID-19 started, we haven’t missed a single day. We didn’t close. We have been here for the public, helping them through the pandemic,” Guse said, holding back tears. “I’m so proud of my employees because of that. They’ve all come to work – every day. I’m proud of them that they are out there serving their community.”

For Mortensen, she’s simply happy to continue doing what she loves – delivering smiles to the faces of the people she serves.

“I’ve had more compliments as a letter carrier this last month than I have in 23 years,” Mortensen said. “I’m out there dropping off packages in the dark so I don’t ring the doorbell, and I have people stepping out, saying good morning, and thanking me for everything I do.”

The postal service is a customer-based service, even if many residents don’t think about it like that, she said.

“Sometimes I have older folks on my route and I’m the only person they see every day. To stand there and greet them while I’m giving them their paper – it makes their day. If that’s all it takes to make someone happy with this crazy world going on right now, well that’s enough to really make you feel good,” she said.

As Mortensen packs up her vehicle for another morning delivering packages, papers and letters, her smile broadens at the various red and green envelopes she gets to deliver that day.

“Things have changed a lot in 23 years, but when you get out there and you can make someone smile with a Christmas card or package,” Mortensen said, as she filled another mailbox, “that’s what we’re all about.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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