Nati Harnik / AP file photo

USPS Faces Busiest Time of the Year With More Than 14,000 Employees Quarantined

COVID-19 cases are spiking within the Postal Service workforce at the worst possible time.

The U.S. Postal Service is experiencing its busiest period of the year ahead of the holiday season, but it is being forced to do so without all of its normal resources. 

More than 14,000 USPS employees are currently quarantining due to potential COVID-19 exposure, according to a recent update provided to the National Association of Letter Carriers, which represents more than 2% of the postal workforce. More than 7,000 employees are currently positive for the novel coronavirus or presumed to be, meaning more than one out of every 100 workers currently has COVID-19. About 23,000 employees have tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The uptick in cases—USPS has seen positive tests skyrocket by 43% in the last month—comes at a difficult time for the mailing agency, which always sees mail and package volume soar in December. Due to restrictions and fears related to the pandemic, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said he expects record volume this season and increases of more than one-third compared to 2019. The Postal Service’s private sector competitors are overrun, DeJoy added, meaning USPS will get additional overflow.  

The postmaster general, who has faced significant criticism during his brief tenure for policies that led directly to mail delays, acknowledged the uptick of coronavirus cases is taking its toll. 

“We continue to see high rates of absenteeism in hot spots around the country,” DeJoy said in a video message to employees on Monday. “This has an impact on local and national service performance and it adds stress throughout the workforce.” 

DeJoy said USPS has taken steps to “support these areas,” but called on employees to do their part in staying healthy by practicing physical distancing, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. He noted the Postal Service has brought on 50,000 seasonal employees, as is typical during the holidays. The Postal Service is also delivering packages on Sunday in most regions of the country.

Shortly after his swearing in earlier this year, DeJoy implemented operational changes calling for facilities to slash late and extra mail transportation trips. This led to mail being left behind each day and widespread delays. Federal court orders ultimately forced USPS to walk back those policies, though postal management is currently appealing those injunctions in hopes of reinstating the reforms. The Postal Service has yet to recover from the delays experienced over the summer, and widespread reports indicate customers are increasingly frustrated by slow deliveries. 

USPS also saw coronavirus cases impact on-time performance in the run up to the election. The agency experienced further delays during that period, officials said, as they focused so much of their resources on delivering mail-in ballots in a timely fashion. 

“While our ongoing commitment is to maintain the highest level of service performance for all mail, we acknowledge that our full focus and prioritization on election ballots is having a near-term impact on the overall on-time performance of other products throughout the network,” Kristin Seaver, chief retail and delivery officer for USPS, told a federal court last month. 

The Postal Service issued recommendations this week to customers looking to have packages arrive by Christmas. It suggested Tuesday as the deadline for normal retail packages, Dec. 19 for First-Class mail and packages, and Dec. 19 for Priority Mail. Going forward, DeJoy has promised a suite of new reforms including the need to “modernize retail and processing operations” as part of a strategic plan USPS will release in the coming months. In a more recent discussion with large-scale mailers, DeJoy more explicitly signaled a return to his initiatives from the summer while finding new ways to grow revenue.

Correction: The original headline on this story misstated the number of USPS employees in quarantine.