A U.S. Postal Service worker makes a delivery with gloves and a mask in Philadelphia on April 2.

A U.S. Postal Service worker makes a delivery with gloves and a mask in Philadelphia on April 2. Matt Rourke / AP

USPS Tests New Ways to Protect Employees From Coronavirus

Agency is seeking to ensure safety as many of the 17,000 workers it has quarantined return for duty.

The U.S. Postal Service is piloting several initiatives to better protect its workforce from the spread of the novel coronavirus, including temperature readings and widespread testing at postal facilities. 

The mailing agency has endured a significant impact from the pandemic, with 2,400 employees testing or presumed positive for COVID-19. It has quarantined 17,000 employees due to exposure to the virus, or nearly 3% of its 630,000 workers. About 70% of those employees have since been cleared to return to work. Sixty postal workers have died from symptoms related to the virus. 

USPS is now working with its unions to begin a “proof of concept” for taking temperatures of employees when they report to work, either once they come inside, before they enter or in their cars. Employees will only have their temperatures read on a voluntary basis and will be sent home if the reading is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher until the fever recedes. The agency will pilot the effort at three facilities in Virginia and one in Oklahoma City. 

The Postal Service will test whether the equipment works properly and the feasibility of ramping up the program. Multiple postal unions said they are working with the agency to determine the proper procedures for the initiative. 

Paul Hogrogian, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, said as more formerly quarantined and sick employees return to work, "more protections need to be put in place." 

The Postal Service promised any employee who is sent home due to a high temperature reading will receive emergency paid sick leave or administrative leave until the fever subsides. Some postal workers have reported their supervisors provided mixed messaging on sick leave eligibility either because they are vulnerable for severe symptoms, had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or need to care for a dependent child. USPS has struck agreements with its unions to employ a “liberal leave” policy, enabling employees with available annual leave to use it if they feel uncomfortable coming into work, allowing the use of sick leave to care for children and providing administrative leave for anyone forced into quarantine by a public health official.

Those agreements are set to expire in the coming weeks and the unions say they are now in talks with postal management to extend them. 

They are also in discussions to make COVID-19 testing kits available at postal workstations. Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said several options are being explored. Hogrogian said widespread testing of USPS employees “would be a positive step in ensuring that mail handlers and all postal workers are protected from the COVID-19 pandemic.” Some New York City-based postal employees are currently part of a research project in which 100-200 USPS employees are voluntarily receiving kits for self-administered tests. 

At Southern postal outposts, USPS is testing various types of face coverings that employees can wear to stay safe while temperatures soar over the summer. Those include bandanas, neck gaiters and cooling masks. Initial results showed that letter carriers preferred the gaiters and bandana-type masks, Rolando said, and USPS is ordering more of those styles. USPS initially experienced significant challenges in procuring and distributing masks and other protective equipment and supplies to its workforce, but now says it has alleviated those concerns.

Rolando said his members are performing heroically, calling them “watch guards of society working diligently to serve the citizens of the United States.” 

Hogrogian said postal management has largely worked positively with his union to solve problems during the pandemic and cautioned his members not to panic. 

“We must be vigilant about how we go about our business, but we must remain as calm as possible,” he said. “We will all get through this together.”

Postal management, meanwhile, is currently experiencing significant turnover after one of its board members resigned, the deputy postmaster general announced he would retire and the board named a new postmaster general. The board of governors has temporarily lost its quorum as it faces a financial crisis exacerbated by a downturn in mail during the pandemic. It has requested $75 billion in financial relief and House Democrats recently voted to provide it one-third of that, though the White House has so far resisted such an approach.