As more than 1,200 USPS workers test positive for COVID-19, employees file allegations about unsafe conditions.
Dozens of U.S. Postal Service employees have filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration due to conditions they allege are unsafe during the novel coronavirus pandemic. This is more employees than have filed complaints against any other federal agency during the outbreak, and among the most of any private or public entity.
USPS workers have sounded the alarm on issues ranging from a lack of personal protective equipment to employees facing requirements to continue working after being exposed to the virus, according to data OSHA released this week. It includes only cases already closed that were filed between Feb. 24 and April 6. More than 1,200 of the Postal Service’s 630,000-person workforce, or about 0.2% of its employees, have tested positive for the virus.
In one case filed from New Hampshire, a postal employee said a colleague reported not feeling well at work and asked to go home. The employee’s manager, according to the complaint, refused to allow the employee to leave. In several cases, employees alleged they continued to work despite having been close to colleagues who later tested positive for COVID-19. One employee said a colleague hid coronavirus symptoms to avoid being sent home, while another said a coworker returned from vacation with “cold and flu-like symptoms” but was not sent home.
Several employees said they had no or limited access to personal protective equipment, especially masks and gloves. Employees raised concerns about working in close proximity to their colleagues and interacting with the public without any protective gear. Others said they were not provided sanitizing products, or that work spaces were not disinfected even after employees who reported to them tested positive. Workers at a post office in Trenton, N.J., were told management was unable to get proper cleaning supplies and the workers would “have to bring their own supplies such as sanitizer and Lysol in from home,” an employee there alleged.
The Postal Service sent home an employee in Phoenix after the carrier displayed COVID-19 symptoms, according to one complaint, but did not sanitize the worker’s truck before providing it to another employee to use. A White Plains, N.Y., post office failed to sanitize the facility after several employees tested positive for the virus, according to another.
USPS said it has updated its cleaning policies “to ensure that all cleaning occurs in a manner consistent with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance relating to this pandemic.” Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman, said much of the concern regarding personal protective equipment has been alleviated.
“We encountered some supply chain issues early on—like the rest of the country—but have since worked through those issues to make sure our employees get all the safety supplies and equipment they need,” he said.
The Postal Service has said it has put up signage, tape and barriers to boost social distancing within its retail locations. Fewer employees have to offer their signatures and letter carriers have been instructed to ask customers to stand back while delivering mail.
Employees in some complaints, however, said no physical distancing strategies had been implemented, especially during shift changes. Management failed to communicate to employees about who had tested positive or where those individuals had been, employees said. In one allegation, a supervisor drove an employee who developed symptoms and later tested positive for COVID-19 to get treatment and then returned to work without quarantining.
Several postal workers filed complaints that bathrooms were not being sanitized, lacked soap and did not have hot water. One complainant alleged management forced employees to share reflective vests they must wear in loading zones without washing them.
OSHA has closed all of these cases, which, according to Ricardo J.A. Pitts-Wiley, a partner at the Federal Practice Group, typically means the workplace hazard has already been abated or the agency was unable to verify a violation. Richard Renner, an attorney at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman and Fitch, speculated that OSHA may be inundated with cases and triaging only those most critical. It has hundreds of coronavirus cases still open, but OSHA redacted employer and all other information related to them. Partenheimer noted USPS has not actually received any coronavirus-related citations, and the number of complaints were small compared to its large workforce.
Postal employees have spoken out for weeks about their concerns with management’s failure to offer greater protections. Management, meanwhile, is dealing with another side of pandemic fallout. The agency is in dire financial straits due to a precipitous decline in mail volume since the outbreak began and has asked for $75 billion from Congress so the agency can stay afloat past the current fiscal year.