As Postal Service Eyes Supreme Court on Vaccine Mandate, It Prepares to Help Send COVID-19 Tests to Americans
USPS also strikes agreement with another union, likely providing more generous pay raises and health care benefits to workers.
The Supreme Court on Friday heard arguments in a case challenging the Biden administration’s mandate that large private employers require their workers to be vaccinated against or tested for COVID-19. The mandate also applies to the U.S. Postal Service.
USPS is watching the case with a careful eye, as it recently warned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that implementing the rule at the wrong time could have “catastrophic” results. Should the mandate survive the Supreme Court, USPS is seeking a 120-day exemption from its enforcement.
The conservative majority on the court appeared to side with the plaintiffs that brought the lawsuit against the mandate in National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor, suggesting the Biden administration had overstepped in requiring vaccines or testing for private entities. Scott Keller, an attorney for the National Federation of Independent Business, pointed specifically at the Postal Service out of the gate, arguing that even “the federal government is seeking an exemption from its own mandate,” albeit temporarily. Chief Justice John Roberts generally appeared sympathetic to Keller’s arguments, but did not find that line of reasoning convincing.
“Just because the Post Office can't do it efficiently doesn't mean private industry can't," Roberts said.
USPS said it would like to delay its implementation of the rule so it is no longer in its peak season when "many employees" opt to leave as a result and to give the agency more time to negotiate with its unions.
The Postal Service, meanwhile, is preparing to assist the Biden administration in another part of its COVID-19 fight, working to distribute 500 million rapid, at-home COVID-19 test kits through the mailing system.
The Biden administration is in the process of finalizing contracts to purchase the tests and unveil a website where Americans can order them for free, and the White House said on Friday it is partnering with USPS to distribute them. The Postal Service is negotiating with its unions on the process, The Washington Post reported on Thursday, including keeping tens of thousands of temporary employees on board past the peak holiday season to help carry out the work.
The administration is aiming to start shipping the tests later this month. Karine Jean-Pierre, a White House spokeswoman, said the Biden team has awarded the first of its contracts to procure the tests and said they would be distributed through the mail. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said on Friday USPS employees were ready to support the health needs of the American public.
“The U.S. Postal Service is proud to fulfil its mission of service to the nation by delivering COVID test kits as part of this important public health initiative of the Biden administration,” DeJoy said. “We have been working closely with the administration and are well prepared to accept and deliver test kits on the first day the program launches.”
USPS has already been busy negotiating with unions, striking a second deal on a collective bargaining agreement. More than 130,000 U.S. Postal Service employees would receive a pay increase of about 4% over the next three years under a new tentative collective bargaining agreement between the mailing agency and one of its major unions, while a portion of them would win new health care benefits.
In addition to three consecutive years of 1.3% wage increases, retroactive to November 2021, career USPS employees in the National Rural Letter Carriers Association would receive six cost-of-living adjustments by 2024. Non-career staff would instead get an additional 1% pay increase annually. In a major victory for those employees, they would in 2023 begin earning 75% of their health care premiums paid for by the Postal Service. The non-career carriers would also receive more generous annual leave benefits.
The wage increases in the contract would be slightly better than the previous iteration, when employees saw an increase of just 3.4% over three years. In another victory for employees, they will now receive Juneteenth as a paid federal holiday. The rest of the federal workforce had the day off for the first time in 2021, but USPS remained open.
USPS and rural letter carriers union leadership agreed to the contract on Thursday. A majority of the union's members must approve of it before it takes effect, with voting scheduled for next month.
“The [National Rural Letter Carriers Association] national board believes this is a fair and reasonable agreement that is in the best interest of the 132,000 hardworking rural letter carriers across the country providing for substantial gains in wages and benefits for all classifications of rural carriers,” the union said in a statement.