"I am putting [my grandmother's] life in danger every day I go to work," one employee said.
The U.S. Postal Service is facing increased pressure from its 630,000 employees, who are sounding the alarm that they are unprotected and vulnerable as they continue to sort and deliver mail throughout the novel coronavirus pandemic.
USPS confirmed at least 85 COVID-19 cases among its employees as of Thursday afternoon, a number that has more than doubled since Monday. It also saw the first death among its employees, with a 50-year-old letter carrier in New York City dying from the virus on Wednesday. While the agency has promised more information, supplies, equipment and communication for its distressed employees, many say it has failed across the board to assuage concerns.
A letter carrier in Cincinnati said her supervisors "absolutely do not care about the health and well-being of their employees." She reported asking daily for hand sanitizer to carry with her on her route, to no avail. She is provided only with one pair of gloves, which she said "isn't going to cut it." Along with several other employees Government Executive spoke to on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, she said postal management is not communicating who has been tested for the virus or ordered on quarantine and has not taken steps to sanitize postal facilities. Some Ohio employees have taken to asking for public donations of sanitizing supplies.
Ultimately, that employee—a single mother—decided to take two weeks off over concerns for her own safety.
In a statement last week, USPS said it was “encouraging healthy behaviors and protocols including frequent hand washing, use of sanitizers, and additional cleaning of work spaces, and [is] encouraging any employee who feels they are sick to stay home.”
"The safety of our employees is remains our highest priority," Dave Partenheimer, a postal spokesman, said Thursday. "We are aware there are some facilities are in need of additional supplies and equipment and we are urgently working to make sure all our employees have what they need to stay safe and healthy."
In addition to a lack of cleaning supplies, however, multiple employees reported receiving mixed messaging on their eligibility to take sick leave either because they are vulnerable for severe symptoms, had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or have a dependent child to care for. USPS has struck agreements with its unions or otherwise announced it would employ a “liberal leave” policy, enable employees with available annual leave to use it if they feel uncomfortable coming into work, allow the use of sick leave to care for children and provide administrative leave for anyone forced into quarantine by a public health official.
Still, that Cincinnati-based letter carrier said her supervisor has threatened not to pay her for her time off. She said until she receives N95 masks and hand sanitizer, she will stay home even if it is in an unpaid status. Another employee, who described himself as a “senior carrier with outlying conditions,” has opted to stay home without pay, noting he was not provided with any masks or sanitizer to take on his route.
One USPS window clerk has not received firm guidance, and is "concerned about repercussions for staying home," according to her husband, a postal retiree. She is still going to work. Her husband has preexisting medical issues due to exposure to Agent Orange. They remain six feet apart when in their house together.
The employees who spoke to Government Executive are not alone in their concerns. More than 75,000 have signed an online petition calling for Postmaster General Megan Brennan to "ensure rights and safety for employees" during the pandemic. They called for leave with full pay for anyone 65 or older (or anyone living with such an individual), added sick leave for anyone who may have contracted the virus, hazard pay for those still at work and suspended service for facilities with vulnerable populations. They also requested "basic supplies," such as gloves, sanitizer spray and face masks at all stations.
“By continuing to work as normal, postal employees are put at great risk of contracting the virus and/or spreading it to customers,” said Alex, the petition’s creator. “If the Postal Service fails to act swiftly and boldly, many employees and customers alike will die as a result, and countless more will suffer illness. The gravity of this can hardly be overstated.”
“I work at USPS and also am the caretaker of my 96-year-old grandmother who lives with me,” one employee wrote in signing the petition. “I am putting her life in danger every day I go to work.”
Another signee blamed the customers who come into post offices, some “visibly with a cold.”
“We are working directly with the public,” the employee wrote. “No masks, no gloves, no sanitizer. I am concerned for our health.”
Postal Service management, meanwhile, is fighting the outbreak on multiple fronts. It has taken steps to protect its workforce and customers, including expanding leave options, attempting to make gloves and surgical masks available upon request, cleaning “frequently touched items” in its facilities, advising letter carriers to adopt new strategies to distance themselves from customers and working collaboratively with labor unions. 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.
It is also dealing with a precipitous drop in mail volume and desperately needed revenue as the nation faces an economic downturn. Some lawmakers and stakeholders pushed for a cash injection for the agency—House Democrats’ stimulus package included $25 billion for the Postal Service—but the deal struck between Senate leaders and the White House instead provided a new $10 billion line of credit.
Despite the steps the agency has taken to protect workers, employees remain concerned it is not enough.
Several employees who spoke to Government Executive complained about the lack of information being passed on to the workforce, saying USPS management’s promises to hold daily “stand up talks” and distribute safety materials have gone unfilled. Partenheimer, the USPS spokesman, said it has made 15 stand up talks available to employees, in addition to those occurring at the local level. The agency is encouraging healthy behaviors and for those who feel sick to stay home, he added.
Another letter carrier, however, said USPS has not provided sufficient evidence to support its assertion that the virus cannot be transmitted through the mail, speculating a mail processor could pass it along to him after touching the same letters. Some workers called for USPS to institute temperature checks for all employees before starting work.
Several employees expressed concern about the direct, in-person interactions they have with customers at retail locations. The engagements, several employees said, violate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to socially distance, especially without proper supplies and equipment.
“What about the clerks who stand at the window who don't have six feet to serve the customers who deal with customers all day long with normal operations?” one asked.