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FOTB: Watford City post office expanding

Jason Hirst, postmaster in Watford City, is the only employee to work the front counter of the post office, which is seeing huge increases in volume due to the city's population growth.

WATFORD CITY -- The post office here closes for an hour each day, but you won't find Postmaster Jason Hirst taking a leisurely lunch.

After two longtime employees left, Hirst was forced to close the window from 12:30 to 1:30 each day just so he can get some work done.

Hirst, who has been Watford City's postmaster for about a year, said he was not prepared for how fast he has to work all day long to keep up with the booming city.

"It never seems to slow down. When you're not working the window, you're helping sort mail. When you're not helping sort mail, you're trying to send out reports and answer emails," said Hirst, 44. "It's just crazy."

Watford City has added 1,240 post office boxes in the past six months, including 720 that will be ready this week after the post office sacrificed some mail sorting space to make room for the new boxes.

"I don't know if we can fit any more in this building," Hirst said. "That's not even close to what we need."

Mail arrives in Watford City from Minot at 9 a.m. each day, the latest Hirst has seen at any post office he's worked for in his 14 years with the postal service.

The mail needs to be sorted and ready for the carriers by 10:30 or 11 a.m. Two employees do the majority of that work while Hirst is the only one working the window.

Carriers have to complete their routes and load the mail truck again by 4 p.m. so it has time to stop in Arnegard and Alexander before dropping the mail off in Williston.

"Three years ago, before the boom took off, it worked great," Hirst said. "But we're delivering a lot more, we're seeing a lot more volume."

In the past year, the Watford City post office has seen a 20 percent increase in parcels and a 120 percent increase in the volume of magazines, newspapers and large envelopes, Hirst said.

Watford City has some home delivery and Hirst is addressing how to expand it. Thousands of people who don't have post office boxes receive mail "general delivery" and show their identification at the post office window to receive their mail.

Hirst usually works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, sometimes later. He rarely gets a day off other than Sundays, and frequently works on federal holidays to catch up.

The postal service has excess employees nationwide, but no one can transfer to Watford City because they can't find housing, Hirst said. As a rule, the postal service does not provide housing for employees, and wages are set nationally without the ability to adjust for areas with a higher cost of living, he said.

Hirst, formerly of Billings, Mont., applied for the Watford City job after the Montana postal district was absorbed by the Dakotas and his job was eliminated.

The plan was for his family to join him by last Christmas, but they've been unable to sell their home in Montana.

Hirst lives in the guest bedroom of some friends in Watford City while his wife and three youngest children live in Baker, Mont. He also has two older sons who live in Billings.

Hirst and his wife adopted the three youngest children last October after being their foster parents for 2 1/2 years. Hirst goes home to visit them every Saturday night through Sunday afternoon.

The youngest boy, who is 3, has a hard time understanding that his dad is away at work.

"He thinks sometimes that I'm gone, I'm dead," Hirst said. "Or he'll say that I don't have a dad."

When that happens, Hirst's wife pulls up Facebook or video chat.

"That's been the hardest part is trying to get my family together," Hirst said.

Hirst said his faith keeps him going, along with supportive Watford City residents who drop off homemade fudge and other goodies for him.

"Every morning I just pray and thank the good Lord I did it again. And start over again," Hirst said.