Postal Workers and COVID-19

A Dispatch from the Front Lines

Melissa Rakestraw

A Chicago-area letter carrier discusses the situation on the ground in the midst of the pandemic. In spite of widespread failures on the part of management, postal workers are organizing to win safer conditions for themselves and the public they serve. 

The first known case of COVID-19 in Illinois was a woman who was hospitalized in late January at a hospital in the community where I deliver mail. As a letter carrier in the Chicago suburbs, hearing this news gave me pause. It immediately caused me to start thinking about the implications an outbreak could have on the public service that postal workers provide. Two months later, it’s evident that far too little has been done to protect postal workers and the communities we serve. 

Indeed, lives have already been lost. On March 25th, Rakkhon Kim, a 23-year veteran letter carrier from the Bronx, passed away from complications related to COVID-19. Kim was only 50 years old. 

What’s more, there are currently more than 2,000 U.S. Postal Service (USPS) employees quarantined nationwide for possible exposure to the coronavirus—60 of whom have tested positive for the virus, 5 of whom are letter carriers in the greater Chicago area. Because there’s been so little testing we can safely assume that the number of infected postal workers is probably exponentially higher.

At my station in suburban Chicago, the situation is worsening. Letter carriers and clerks are currently working in unsafe conditions with a lack of needed supplies and protective equipment. Once carriers leave the office to deliver our routes we may be 20 minutes away from a location where we can wash our hands yet we are not being provided with hand sanitizer to carry with us. 

Management has also failed to provide disinfecting wipes to wipe down equipment and surfaces in our vehicles. We were told on March 17th that if we wanted those things we would have to buy them ourselves because our suppliers didn’t currently have any available. When we told one manager that we couldn’t find hand sanitizer in stores she replied, “Well, I found some for me and my family at the Dollar Store, yesterday.” 

On February 3rd, USPS sent out a Maintenance Management Order safety bulletin to offices informing local managers which cleaning supplies to order due to coronavirus. These instructions, however, were ignored by many managers around the country. My office was no exception. And now that they’ve finally started to order these products, they’re unavailable. Disposable gloves are available sporadically but no masks are being given out even though there are 60-70 of us working in the office together every morning in close proximity less than 6 feet apart. 

This failure on the part of management puts postal workers and our families at risk. But it also threatens the health of the community we serve, since many routes deliver to 400-500 single-family residences, not to mention countless apartment buildings, hospitals, nursing homes, retirement communities and businesses that remain open during the pandemic. 

Letter carriers are essential workers who deliver to every residence in this country and we feel a responsibility now more than ever to continue delivering medications, mail-in voting ballots, checks, tax returns, census forms, soon to be released stimulus checks and every manner of goods ordered online. But we are not being allowed to prioritize safety as we perform labor that is crucial to the functioning of society. Case in point: we use hand-held electronic devices that we pass to customers for items that require signature, and until recently carriers weren’t told to disinfect these devices. Indeed, USPS waited until March 19th to finally issue an order to stop giving them to customers. And carriers in my station weren’t told about the new protocol until the 20th—and then only after I complained to management that they were ignoring the directive. It is a common occurrence to hear the latest updates from our union or through online channels before management addresses it on the workroom floor with everyone. 

USPS has been issuing regular Stand-Up safety talks to offices that are supposed to be read aloud by a local manager so that all workers can be updated on best practices and protocols. But, as with the purchasing of goods necessary to protect our health, many post office managers have not taken this seriously. 

For example, a “Mandatory Stand-Up” safety talk issued by USPS on February 11th said that workers should “Stay home when you are sick.” Despite being labeled as “mandatory,” that talk was never read in my office and we were not told by our manager to stay home if sick until March 17th. In fact, in late February two workers in my office who were running high fevers were told by management to “just wear a mask and go about your normal workday.” Even though we receive paid sick leave, many postal workers are afraid to call in sick for fear that they will receive discipline for not maintaining a regular schedule. This is a major concern for people who work in offices with vindictive managers who treat employees in a punitive manner, which is a widespread problem.

These failures, however, aren’t simply due to errors and negligence of local managers. USPS has also failed, on a much broader level, to rise to the occasion and do what’s necessary to protect us and the public we serve. For example: even though we deliver to every home, no information has been sent out to our customers advising them on how to help keep carriers as well as themselves as safe as possible. Customers often know their regular carrier and may be used to going to the mailbox to take their mail from us directly or hand us an outgoing package. In cases like this, it falls on carriers to be hyper-alert and warn them to stay away for their safety and ours. This is unacceptable. 

USPS could also request that customers put a note in their mailbox or at their door if they’re infected so that we can take even more precautions. Many carriers have to stand in lobbies or common outdoor areas to deliver mail to clusters of mailboxes and there’s often no way for us to stop people from coming within 6 feet of us. Clerks who work at retail counters also come in close contact with potentially infected people and USPS has not sent out a call asking people to only come into the counter if they have no alternative. 

Customers should be informed about all the options they have, whether it’s ordering stamps from home, using online postage services or—as a last resort—using the automated devices in post office lobbies. These are relatively easy, common sense steps that could help to protect us and the public—but like much of the Federal Government, USPS has failed to take this crisis seriously and take decisive action.

There are widespread worker complaints that it has been “business as usual” in many offices, where management’s top priority is simply delivering the mail as fast as possible while using the fewest amount of worker hours.  Because most managers regularly prioritize reducing hours and speeding up the pace of work, they haven’t been able to adapt a “safety first” mode of practice. We saw these same backward priorities in the wake of 9/11 when 5 people, two of whom were postal workers, were killed because of anthrax being sent through the mail. Many of us who were working at that time weren’t provided with gloves and masks for extra protection—and equipment wasn’t properly disinfected then either. 

While management has agreed to some expanded use of sick leave for people to take care of their children, they have yet to offer any additional compensation for workers showing up and working through a National State of Emergency. Postal workers are at increased risk of acquiring this potentially deadly virus, yet we aren’t being offered hazard pay which would seem to be a minimum. 

The problems hardly stop there. When a doctor orders someone to self-quarantine because they’re experiencing symptoms, postal workers are eligible to receive paid administrative leave until they’re diagnosed—but if workers choose to self-quarantine because they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, they are forced to burn up their personal sick leave. This, too, is unacceptable. Essential workers responding  to a pandemic shouldn’t have to choose between the risk of spreading the virus by coming to work after possible exposure or depleting their saved personal sick leave that they may need down the road for future unexpected illness or injury.  

We want to do so in as safe a manner as possible—even if that means we have to take matters into our own hands with collective action.

We are not giving up, however. In the absence of  leadership on the part of those in charge, postal workers have been taking action on their own to find supplies to share with their co-workers. So, too, have they begun to resist the incompetent, callous way that management is handling the pandemic. It was reported last Friday, for instance, that  letter carriers in Brooklyn refused to enter their post office after learning that a supervisor tested positive for Coronavirus. There are countless stories like this coming from offices around the country.

Perhaps most importantly, postal workers are beginning to organize around national-level demands. That’s why we’re circulating a petition that has collected over 77,000 signatures so far that advances a list of demands that aim to better protect ourselves and our communities. We would greatly appreciate it if you would show some solidarity and sign and share it. 

The demands in the petition include but are not limited to: hazard pay at time and a half, emergency protocols like suspending direct delivery to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other high risk locations as well as granting leave with full pay for the duration of the pandemic for employees who are at high risk because of age, chronic long term illnesses and those with compromised immune systems.. 

Like countless other workers, USPS employees are on the front lines every day sacrificing their personal safety in order to provide a crucial public service. We want to do so in as safe a manner as possible—even if that means we have to take matters into our own hands with collective action. We know we’re not alone, and we look forward to linking arms with other essential workers as we fight to put people and public safety above profit and privilege for the few.

Melissa Rakestraw has been a United States Postal Service letter carrier for 25 years in the Chicago area. She is a trade union activist and a socialist organizer.