DLA Distribution employees pack, ship pandemic supplies to worldwide customers

By Beth Reece

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Editor's note: This is part of a series of 11 stories highlighting individual and team contributions to DLA’s pandemic support.

Jay Lightner and his 17-member crew of material handlers are in a constant race against the clock to pack and ship personal protective equipment for military and federal customers. Soon after it arrives at the depot from contracted vendors and shipping instructions are relayed, the team jumps to action.

“Me and my employees band together as a group and are willing to work through breaks, come in early and stay late if that’s what it takes to get this stuff out the door. We understand the criticality of these items and how important they are to saving lives,” said Lightner, supervisor of the Unit Material Fielding Point Team at Defense Logistics Agency Distribution Susquehanna in Pennsylvania.

Employees across DLA’s 25 distribution depots have been packing and shipping everything from cloth face masks to rapid-result test kits since March for DOD, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services. When Lightner’s team was given a seven-day deadline in the summer to prepare shipments for 3,300 nursing homes, the group finished in just five days.

The team ordinarily handles Foreign Military Sales shipments but switched to personal protective equipment as FMS work declined and pandemic support soared. Protective equipment is normally sent direct to customers from vendors, but the agency is relying on DLA Distribution to stock and ship supplies it acquires from multiple small vendors because large vendors under contract lack the quantities needed to fulfil orders.

Though some supplies are loaded as-is on trucks for distribution, the team spends much of its time breaking down packages into smaller orders that can be easily delivered by UPS and FedEx drivers.

“It makes a lot of sense for us to prepare things for delivery by FedEx, for example, because they already have dedicated deliveries going to the locations the material is being shipped to,” Lightner said.

Nationwide closures and limited staffs and hours have resulted in some returned shipments, however, because there’s no one to accept delivery of the items at the destination.

“That’s extra work for us because we have to bring it back into stock and make sure the customer doesn’t get charged,” Lightner said, adding that other DLA Distribution employees work with intended recipients to reschedule deliveries, which include special instructions to ensure receipt.

The number of trucks the team fills each day varies according to how much material is in stock, but Lightner said orders are processed in about three or four batches daily as warehouse workers pick material from shelves for packing by his team.

Most DLA Distribution employees are essential workers and must report on site rather than heed the agency’s mass telework order. Social distancing was difficult in the early months of the pandemic but is now a mindless habit, he said.

“It’s all so normal now. Most of us don’t even think about having to put a mask on as we come in through the gate each morning. We just automatically do it,” Lightner added. Uninterrupted support from his team is a testament to the safety measures each member practices, he continued.

Lightner has worked at the Susquehanna facility for 24 years and said he believes DLA’s support during the pandemic is “immense.”

“What we’ve accomplished is on such a grand scale, and there are 24 other depots doing some of the same work we’re doing,” he said. “We’re proud to help.”