The Postal Service Is Breaking Down

The Postal Service Is Breaking Down

Covid-19 has already begun to take its toll on the overextended USPS workforce.


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On March 31, Senator Bernie Sanders launched an inquiry into the working conditions of postal workers during the coronavirus pandemic, citing this investigation. Generous readers like you made that possible.

Last Thursday, Charles Martin showed up at the post office in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he works as a letter carrier. When he arrived, he learned that a clerk in the station had been quarantined after she displayed symptoms of Covid-19.

“I heard about it from somebody else in the station, because management hasn’t announced it yet,” Martin told me. “Half the station still doesn’t know.” He keeps going into work though, he said; after all, the number of packages has started to ramp up since Ohio’s governor closed bars and restaurants on March 15.

“We’re an essential service, so we’ve got to keep going,” Martin said, “but there are a lot of older employees at my station, and I’m worried about it spreading to them.” The oldest carrier, he said, was more than 75 years old; as of Tuesday that carrier and all the others in Martin’s station were showing up, though many of them are afraid to interact with their coworkers and their customers.

As the coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, the Postal Service has struggled to maintain its crucial role in connecting the country, while also protecting its workers and customers. These challenges are not limited to disinfecting surfaces or social distancing, either: Many post offices have long been understaffed, and the coronavirus is poised to push an already overworked labor force to a breaking point. Without drastic action, the virus could soon threaten the Postal Service just when it’s needed most.

On Thursday, the National Association of Letter Carriers reported that Rakkhon Kim, a 50-year-old mail carrier in the Bronx had died of complications related to Covid-19. As of that same day, at least 85 postal workers were suspected to have the coronavirus, about quadruple the number that were thought to have it last week. These employees work in stations all around the country, from locked down areas like New York City and Westchester County to smaller towns like Howell, Georgia, and Troy, Michigan.

The Postal Service said it has quarantined those employees and anyone who had close contact with them for more than a few minutes, but thousands upon thousands of carriers and clerks are still going to work, where every day they deliver to hundreds of different addresses and handle thousands of pieces of paper and cardboard, where research suggests the virus can linger for hours at a time.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus caught many industries in the United States by surprise, but postal workers said the response at their stations has been particularly slow and ineffective. Half a dozen clerks and carriers told me that management has not been able to provide soap, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer, or gloves for postal carriers.

Last week, USPS management rolled out new protocols that require some employees to wear gloves and guarantee masks to any employee who wants one. They also mandate that all surfaces be disinfected and wiped down. But postal workers uniformly told me they can’t access any protective and sanitary supplies; two employees further said that as of Monday their station management still hadn’t addressed the coronavirus in stand-up meetings.

“I’d describe their response as completely lacking,” said Lawrence, a carrier who works in western Ohio. “[Last] Friday was the first day it got brought up in any meaningful way, and that was to tell us they had no supplies to help us with cleaning, with gloves, anything,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s been treated as nothing is going on.”

A postal clerk named, Jim, who works in Colorado, said that even though there haven’t been many coronavirus cases in his area yet, he’s worried about passing the disease to letter carriers who then spread it along their routes.

“Right now the focus is on washing your hands and disinfecting, but it’s viable for a very long time on cardboard, and we don’t have very many disinfecting supplies,” he said. “If you have a post office like ours with a small lobby, you can see how the mail coming in could easily spread the disease.” While FedEx and UPS have new guidelines that prohibit customers from touching digital package scanners, Jim said, his station was still allowing customers to sign for packages and certified mail.

At his station, he said, a lobby assistant typically walks down the line and uses a mobile scanner to scan packages, allowing customers to sign the scanner with their fingers. Colorado instituted a shelter-in-place order on Tuesday, but before that, he said, his station management hadn’t taken the disease seriously.

“I deliver to an area that has a good amount of elderly people in it, and they’re the ones who are most likely to meet me at the door to say hello or to get their mail right away. It makes me uneasy, because they’re very vulnerable,” Lawrence said.

“Even when people want to take normal sick leave, it’s always a struggle at our station,” said Jim. “It requires overtime, extended hours, things like that.” If the coronavirus spreads through the workforce in his area of Colorado, he said, the workforce will be stretched even further—likely with clerks and carriers forced to work daily shifts of up to 12 hours.

“The last couple days, it’s almost like Christmas again with the parcel volume,” said Lawrence. “We’re starting to get shipments of things that people can’t get in stores anymore.” People in his station, he said, were working minimum 10-hour shifts already, even with no one out on sick leave. An increase in package volume, of course, means more heavy lifting for clerks and carriers, which will leave them more exhausted at the end of each day.

Sasha, who delivers mail in a city in Massachusetts, said carriers in his station were already doubling up on routes before the virus.

“My station is pretty understaffed as it is. Actually, most of the stations around here are understaffed, so we’re already kind of on a shoestring,” he said, adding that on most of his shifts he delivers for two full postal routes. “Anytime someone does call in sick, that’s another route that isn’t getting delivered, so we’re all doing a lot of overtime as it is. If we start having a lot of carriers out, then, honestly, I don’t know what it’s going to look like.”

David Partenheimer, a spokesperson for the USPS, told me, “The safety of our employees remains our highest priority. We are urgently working to make sure all our employees have what they need to stay safe and healthy.” He added that the USPS had rolled out a series of informational videos and talks about hand washing and social distancing, and that it was making masks and gloves available to employees who asked for them. He also said that the agency had modified customer signature procedures to avoid customers touching scanners, and was encouraging carriers to keep a safe distance from customers.

As the coronavirus taxes staffing levels, the two postal unions and postal management are scrambling to find a way to keep workers safe without compromising the agency’s essential function. Last week, the unions representing mail handlers and letter carriers both inked deals with postal management that will allow employees to use their sick leave days to take care of children who may be out of school, a policy that includes part-time “non-career” employees. The agreements also require station managers to relax their typically strict policies about schedule and shift changes.

Looking forward, though, the unions’ biggest concern is the same as the rank-and-file employees who spoke to me: making sure stations can get the mail out without overworking their clerks and carriers.

“The staffing levels are definitely strained,” said Kevin Tabarus, who runs the New York City local for the National Postal Mail Handlers’ Union. “It’s becoming a problem. We’re encouraging our employees to stay home if they feel sick, of course, but the ones that are able to work are working even more hours to get the mail out. There are attendance problems, because people are sick, of course, so everybody’s working overtime.”

Don Sneesby, who runs the NPMHU local in Washington state and Alaska, said that there have been work shortages across his region as well. Sneesby said that if things get much worse in Seattle, the USPS may have to treat the coronavirus as it would a natural disaster, temporarily suspending operations in the facilities or areas that have been heaviest hit by the disease.

Paul Hogrogian, the president of the mail-handlers’ union, said that he expects management and the unions will soon come to an agreement that would temporarily allow the Postal Service to hire what it calls “non-career” employees, which are part-time employees without benefits. This potential agreement, which has not been previously reported, would help improve conditions at many understaffed stations and provide thousands of new jobs for Americans who have been laid off or whose employers have folded due to the coronavirus. (The National Association of Letter Carriers, the other major postal union, said only that the union was in “an ongoing dialogue with the Postal Service” about the coronavirus.)

In a statement released on Monday night, Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Gerry Conolly (D-VA) said that the Postal Service had already seen a sharp decline in traditional mail like magazines and fliers; without direct financial assistance, they said, the agency could go broke by the summer.

The Postal Service would likely turn a profit if it were run like most government agencies, but the agency is bound by a unique requirement to pre-fund its retirement benefits more than 50 years in advance. That mandate along with a post-recession decline in mail volumes has left the agency in a precarious financial situation, and the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus now puts its basic operations in jeopardy. Accordingly, the two representatives added to the House stimulus package a set of provisions that would help bail out the agency, including an emergency payment of $25 billion and a provision that would allow the agency to borrow an additional $15 billion in the short term. The final version of the bill passed by the Senate, though, only raised the borrowing limit to $10 billion and omitted the emergency payment.

If Congress does not take further action to save the Postal Service in the near future, the scenario predicted by Maloney and Connolly may come to pass, and its consequences would be dire. Without a functioning Postal Service, there would be no one to deliver medicine, medical supplies, and protective equipment to households and hospitals around the country, especially in more remote places. As more states and cities go on lockdown, families will also rely on the USPS to deliver packages full of any food and hygienic supplies they may not be able to find in grocery stores. And now that Congress has passed its $2 trillion stimulus package, it will be USPS workers who will deliver the checks that many Americans desperately need.

“We’re really on the frontlines,” said Tabarus. “We’ve never seen something like this before. Anthrax was bad, for instance, but this really beats it. It’s really, really bad.”

But the postal workers who spoke to me said that the Postal Service’s role in fighting the coronavirus goes beyond what’s sorted in its distribution plants and packed into its mail trucks. The agency’s most important role during a pandemic, the postal employees said, is as a first responder, an infrastructure that helps keep people connected to each other when nothing else will.

“We deliver medicine and essential equipment, yes,” said Jim, “but we’re also the ones who are going to every address, often conduct welfare checks on people, knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ That’s our traditional role, it goes back for a while.”

Sasha agreed, saying his customers have told him over the past few weeks that seeing his truck outside their window helps give them a sense of normalcy. “Our routes are timed to the minute,” he said. “We hit the same house, at the same time, every day. There are some customers who look forward to that. That might be their only human contact the entire day. It lets them breathe a little bit easier, like, all right, things are bad, but we still have some sense of stability going on.”

“We’re a service that stitches the community together,” said Martin. “If people see us out delivering the mail like normal, it calms them down.”

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of National Postal Mail Handlers’ Union official Don Sneesby.

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