Congress floats major cash injection as employees remain concerned for their safety.
As more than three-dozen U.S. Postal Service employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the agency is taking new steps to protect employees who remain concerned they do not have the proper resources to stay safe.
USPS has struck memoranda of understanding with its employees’ labor unions, which give non-career workers access to 80 hours of paid leave, enable individuals to take leave if they are vulnerable to COVID-19 or to care for loved ones, and allow some groups of employees to work remotely. The agency has committed to ramping up its efforts to clean “frequently touched items,” though workers have raised concerns they are not receiving adequate supplies like hand sanitizer. Citing the national diversion to frontline health care workers of personal protective equipment, such as the N95 masks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended as most effective in preventing the spread of the virus, USPS has instead promised to make standard surgical masks and gloves available to workers upon request.
To date, 40 postal workers have contracted the virus. Many more are home on mandatory quarantine as they may have come in contact with infected individuals.
USPS could soon see a major cash infusion, as House Democrats on Monday floated a stimulus package to revive the slumping economy that included a draft proposal to eliminate the agency’s outstanding debt owed to the U.S. Treasury. The agency ended fiscal 2019 with a bill of $11 billion. The House measure would allow the Postal Service to borrow up to another $15 billion, its current statutory borrowing limit. It would also provide a one-time payment of $20 billion into the Postal Service Fund. Many stakeholders have called for a cash injection for the cash-strapped agency, which has historically endured significant downturns in revenue during economic recessions.
The Postal Service has committed to keeping the mail operational, noting the agency is “part of the nation’s critical infrastructure” by delivering medicines, Social Security checks and online purchases. In a statement, USPS said that it makes shelter-in-place and other social distancing restrictions possible. It stressed there is no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail.
Still, USPS did not rule out the possibility of shutting down operations in some areas, as it might during a hurricane or wildfire.
“We are actively monitoring all aspects of our business operations and functions, and we are highly confident in our ability to process and deliver the nation’s mail and packages throughout this emergency,” said Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman. “We do not expect disruption or degradation in the services we provide. “If, for some reason, we need to curtail operations in a particular facility or area, activation of localized continuity of operations plans will be implemented to provide required support.”
Agency officials are directing letter carriers to take special steps to keep their distance from customers. Instead of asking for signatures, they will ask customers to provide their first initial and last name so they can enter the information electronically. They will also “politely ask the customer to step back a safe distance or close the screen door/door so that they may leave the item in the mail receptacle or appropriate location by the customer door.”
Postal employees can use up to 80 hours of sick leave to care for dependents, including those home during school closures. Most non-career employees, such as city carrier assistants, now have 80 hours of paid leave they can use in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Any worker who contracts the virus or is forced into quarantine will receive paid administrative leave. The agency previously instructed supervisors to adopt a liberal sick leave policy.
Partenheimer said USPS does not have any data on a potential uptick in staff absences, but emphasized “the health and well-being of our employees is of the utmost concern.”
USPS said it is regularly communicating with employees through videos, email, newsletters and, at the local level, “standup talks” about the latest developments. The agency has been in talks with its unions on a daily basis to provide updates, and officials on both sides said the groups have worked together amicably.
“The work letter carriers perform every day plays a vital role to the people of the United States,” Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said in a message to employees. “During this challenging time, that role becomes even greater as we deliver lifesaving and life-sustaining goods to our customers to assist them through this outbreak. Letter carriers are known for the crucial work they perform serving the public, especially in times like this.”