A thermometer shows the heat in Death Valley, California. Long stretches of extreme heat in many areas of the United States this summer have Postal Service employees concerned about safety, especially after a mail carrier in Texas died last month.

A thermometer shows the heat in Death Valley, California. Long stretches of extreme heat in many areas of the United States this summer have Postal Service employees concerned about safety, especially after a mail carrier in Texas died last month. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

‘They don’t care about my life’: Lawmakers, employees raise concerns about heat after USPS mail carrier's death

Record temperatures are renewing longstanding fears that USPS is pushing employees to the brink without adequate concern for their safety.

Eugene Gates began working for the U.S. Postal Service in the late 1980s. He continued on his route in Dallas for 36 years until one day last month, when he collapsed in a customer’s yard. 

The heat index had reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The 66-year-old died shortly thereafter at a nearby hospital.  

Lawmakers from both parties are now asking questions and requesting information on what steps the Postal Service will take to protect workers and avoid future tragedies with extreme heat on the rise. Employees are skeptical, too, with many demanding a new approach to safety from postal management. 

USPS has taken at least some steps to respond in certain cases. In Texas, for example, local management has allowed letter carriers to start their days earlier—at 7:30 a.m.—so they can avoid some of the hottest parts of the day. To some, however, that is too little, too late. In times like these, said Christine Putz, a letter carrier in Ohio, top postal officials offer “fluff” about how they care for the workforce. 

“That only happens after a death hits the news,” Putz said. 

She noted that supervisors have been handing out headbands meant to provide some cooling, though their benefits fade within an hour of working in the heat. The postmasters sometimes put a case of water bottles in the fridge. 

Despite those efforts, she said, “The morale of the workforce has never been lower.” 

Kimetra Lewis, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers local in Dallas where Gates worked, said that while she appreciates the starting hour change, she and her members still feel pressured by management not to take too many “comfort stops.” The Postal Service can monitor employees based on their scanners and receives alerts when a carrier is sitting idle for more than 10 minutes. That can affect an employees' job performance rating, as was the case for Gates. The letter carrier faced discipline a month before his death for engaging in too many "stationary events." Multiple employees told Government Executive such a slap on the wrist would discourage them from taking the number of breaks they need, even when feeling overwhelmed by heat.  

“They want letter carriers to still perform in 100 degree temperatures as if it was 70 degrees,” Lewis said. “That’s not going to happen.”

Lewis added some employees are going to “do what is necessary to make sure they’re safe,” but that is not the case for everyone. 

“There are others who have a fear about being retaliated against by management and they're going to push themselves,” Lewis said. “I’m afraid that something like what happened with Mr. Gates will happen to someone else.” 

Corey Walton, a letter carrier in Nashville, said he has grown so frustrated with postal management that he has created a podcast to discuss his concerns. He has spent several episodes highlighting what he sees as the agency’s complicity in Gates’ death and its failures writ large on heat-related issues. Supervisors often say the right things—that employees should take breaks to cool off as necessary—but fail to follow that up with action, he said.

Leaders at both the local and national level ping messages to carriers’ scanners telling them to “keep it moving,” Walton said. “Employees say they are getting overcome by the heat [and] management says to carry on,” he said. “They bully the letter carrier.” 

Theoretical Safeguards, Applied Inconsistently

Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesperson, noted the agency has created the Heat Illness Prevention Program, which provides safety training to all employees and “assures they have the resources needed to do their jobs safely.”

“Carriers are reminded to ensure they’re hydrated, wear appropriate clothing, including hats, get in the shade whenever possible, and to take sufficient amounts of water and ice with them out on their routes,” Partenheimer said. “Carriers are further instructed to contact 9-1-1 in the event they begin experiencing any symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, and they are provided with information to help them identify the symptoms associated with these two forms of heat illness.”

To Walton, that advice is only useful to the extent that it is followed through upon. He accused management of exaggerating how many employees received heat-related training, noting he knew some colleagues were marked as having taken it on a day when they were not working. If managers want to prove they are serious about employee safety, he said, they will stop sending messages instructing letter carriers not to take rests. 

Several employees told Government Executive they felt pushed to the brink. In practice, they said, they are told to complete their routes as quickly as possible without regard for external conditions. 

“Management is always on us to hurry up, get out the door and rush to get the job done,” said Brendan Lyman, a letter carrier in southern Virginia. “We know that the new postmaster general is making changes but everyone is in the dark and being pushed to work as if we were robots.”

Paul Swartz, director of governmental affairs for the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, said management is handling this summer’s heat waves inconsistently. Some members have reported being provided Gatorade or water and told to, if necessary, find air conditioning in a public location until they feel better. Other offices have received generic “stand-up talks” about staying safe in the heat, while others have received nothing at all. 

“It is all varying throughout the country, and there seems to be no consistent message from management on handling the heat,” Swartz said. Some of the advice, he added, while well intentioned, is impractical. Rural letter carriers cannot easily find public air conditioned spaces along their routes, for example. 

Congressional Questions

Letter carriers also often struggle to stay cool while on the road. Typical delivery vehicles do not have air conditioning, but USPS is in the process of replacing its fleet after years of deferring the changes, and the new trucks will feature AC. They were originally expected to start hitting the streets this fall but are now delayed until mid-2024.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, took the lead on a bipartisan letter to USPS just days before Gates’ death, noting a surge in the number of 100-plus degree days in south and central Texas and imploring leadership to prioritize the region for the first batch of the new vehicles. 

“Given the extreme heat that our communities regularly experience, we feel strongly that our region should be among the first in the nation to receive these new, air-conditioned vehicles,” the Texas lawmakers said. 

Erik Carver, a North Carolina-based letter carrier, said air conditioned vehicles will not make a significant difference, as he and his colleagues already drive with windows and doors open. Carver praised his local management for providing items such as ice pops and electrolyte packages and reminding employees to look out for signs of heat-based illness. Individual employees should take responsibility for ensuring their own safety, he said. 

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., spearheaded a letter to the Postal Service from Democrats on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee following Gates’ death, to express “deep concerns over the working conditions and labor practices” at the agency. They faulted USPS for failing to develop comprehensive, nationwide policies to address extreme heat that would prevent deaths, including more blanket approvals for carriers to start their routes earlier in the day. They asked for information on how many such requests USPS has received and approved over the last year and more generally what steps the agency has taken to address the acute threat of heat-related risks. 

Partenheimer said the Postal Service would answer the lawmakers’ letter directly. 

The issue is not a new one for postal employees, though it has grown worse with more extended heat waves. USPS has repeatedly faced fines and citations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over the last decade, several of which were issued after employees succumbed to heat-related deaths. A 2019 report from the Center for Public Integrity found OSHA since 2012 had cited USPS for exposing 900 employees to potential heat-related illness or death. 

Walton, the letter carrier and podcaster, predicted the situation will not improve until Congress forces postal management to focus on issues other than meeting delivery metrics. 

“They don’t care about my life,” Walton said. “They care about numbers and numbers only.”