- Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have surpassed 1,200 at the United States Postal Service, which logged a mere 51 cases less than a month ago. More than 30 employees have died.
- In emails to Business Insider, USPS employees claimed a lack of sanitation supplies, sick pay, and care from supervisors.
- One employee said a supervisor coughed in the direction of a coworker “as a joke.” The USPS told Business Insider that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an inquiry into the claim, and that after the USPS responded, “OSHA closed the matter without further inspection.”
- The USPS has established safety and leave policies during the pandemic, but employees and unions have said those policies aren’t being carried out everywhere.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
United States Postal Service employees from various states and municipalities are sharing their stories about what it’s like to process and deliver the nation’s mail during a pandemic.
As confirmed COVID-19 cases surpass 1,200 among the employees, a common refrain has emerged: lack of supplies and care amid the deadly outbreak is putting them at risk.
“I’m almost begging you to do some sort of investigation,” a longtime USPS employee and American Postal Workers Union (APWU) member in California told Business Insider via email. The employee said they felt as if their supervisors didn’t care, which was underscored by one particular event.
“A coworker stated that the supervisor coughed in his direction less than a few feet away as a joke after the employee had made a remark about [the coronavirus],” they said. The employee claimed that the acting manager “sort of chuckled” when it happened, making light of a pandemic that has so far infected more than 2.8 million people and killed nearly 200,000 worldwide.
A USPS spokesperson told Business Insider that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an inquiry into the claim, and that after the USPS responded, “OSHA closed the matter without further inspection.”
Emails like the one above began to flood in not long after the USPS joined the coronavirus news cycle, such as in this story about how the service was in a financial crisis and how, as of March 25, 51 of 630,000 USPS employees had tested positive for the coronavirus and nearly 2,000 were in quarantine.
At the time, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) union representing USPS city carriers said protective measures from the USPS weren’t being deployed evenly.
But things have gotten worse since then. As of April 17, counts from the NALC were that more than 900 employees had tested positive for the virus, more than 600 additional workers were presumed positive, more than 8,000 were in quarantine, and that more than 30 USPS employees had died from COVID-19, including nine city carriers.
The American Postal Workers Union, which also represents USPS employees, wrote on April 16 that more than 35 postal workers, including “a number of APWU members,” had died of COVID-19.
On April 21, USPS spokesperson Dave Partenheimer told Business Insider that 1,219 employees had tested positive for COVID-19, in addition to “some deaths.” Partenheimer did not have quarantine numbers to provide.
That means the USPS has roughly 24 times the amount of cases it had less than a month ago, despite both insufficient amounts of testing and inequality in distribution across the US – as illustrated by asymptomatic celebrities, athletes, and billionaires obtaining tests while nurses on the front lines struggle to do the same.
The longtime USPS employee in California, who isn’t a carrier, told Business Insider that employees including themself were “either scared to speak up or simply don’t want to put a target on [their] back for speaking up” about insufficiencies at the post office amid the pandemic.
Only one employee who emailed Business Insider, who had been previously quoted by another outlet, didn’t ask to stay anonymous out of fear of retaliation – Colorado carrier Stefan Geissler, who has actively spoken about the USPS’ response to the pandemic.
“While so many businesses have done their part and made difficult decisions to flatten the curve, the USPS is, as you know, not even in the starting blocks,” Geissler told Business Insider via email.
Other employees who reached out to Business Insider specifically asked not to be identified in order to protect their employment, which Business Insider has verified.
The others echoed Geisler, along with the California employee saying they don’t feel like the pandemic is being taken seriously enough. Management and other employees aren’t following Centres for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, they said, and they have sent complaints to multiple organisations about what’s going on.
“We’re given daily ‘stand up’ safety briefings and are required to sign documents saying we were given this ‘training,’ yet the supervisors do not practice any of the recommendations,” they said, adding that the safety briefings happen every day in a small room and social-distancing guidelines aren’t followed during them. “They are different everyday, and seem to be from the CDC and the post office’s safety department.”
But, the employee said, their office hasn’t “bothered to inform [them] of an employee who got the coronavirus in a building less than 100 yards away.” They discovered the nearby case after seeing an alert that was intended for managers, they said.
“When an employee asked about any cases next door, both the supervisor and acting manager acted as though they knew nothing and quickly changed the subject,” they said. “Myself and three other employees go into that building to get our facility’s mail, and they said nothing to us.
“And here we are interacting within the vicinity, not knowing if we could be contracting a deadly disease and take it home to our families.”
The NALC said that in March, the USPS created a mandatory stand-up talk required to be given each time a facility has an employee who tested positive for COVID-19. The union has asked employees to report it if those talks are not happening.
When asked, Partenheimer told Business Insider that in addition to stand-up talks that are supposed to be given when an employee tests positive, “any employees who may have had exposure” to the person who tested positive are notified.
The California employee, an American Postal Workers Union member, said the union had been notified of all of the issues in their facility. On April 17, they sent Business Insider a photo of a bottle with clear liquid and a homemade label reading “hand sanitizer,” claiming that it was a replacement bottle in the office.
“No labels, just some bottle management gave us,” they said. “Is it the right mixture?”
When asked about the photo, Partenheimer told Business Insider that the USPS “only uses or purchases EPA approved products for cleaning and sanitizing.”
A Massachusetts employee who has spent decades working for the postal service, primarily as a city carrier, said that while their branch is supposed to receive daily safety briefings, there were three days during the first week of April when there were no briefings. The inconsistency carried into the next week, they said.
When asked how the USPS is ensuring daily talks happen and safety protocols are being enforced, Partenheimer told Business Insider: “Standard Work Instructions have been issued to address social distancing in a number of different situations, including performing talks to our employees.”
In addition, Partenheimer said, all stand-up talks “are tracked” to ensure they happen. When asked how they’re logged, Partenheimer said it’s done in an online system called the “Safety Toolkit.” People who are conducting the briefings have to certify that they delivered the talks and when they were given.
But the Massachusetts employee said the inconsistency of safety briefings wasn’t the only problem.
“We have had limited access to sanitizing wipes and employees have resorted to buying construction wipes online,” they said, adding that as of April 3, their postal facility hadn’t provided employees with any hand sanitizer.
The local fire and EMS service donated more than 20 small bottles of sanitizer, they said, adding that the USPS’ “lack of preparedness and concern” is “systemic of our work conditions.” The local fire chief confirmed the donation to Business Insider, saying the employee’s office was one of two that received sanitizer donations.
The employee “wouldn’t dream of treating employees this way,” they said.
Employees were eventually provided with Lysol spray to share, the employee from Massachusetts said, in addition to a “short supply of gloves and limited wipes.” Those in the community created cloth masks, too.
A longtime city carrier in Ohio told Business Insider that when they opted to self quarantine at the end of March after not receiving adequate supplies or workstation sanitation, and after hearing that employees weren’t being “informed of employees with pending tests,” they weren’t able to use their hundreds of hours of earned sick leave.
The employee, a National Association of Letter Carriers member, sent photos of their hour tracking and earned hours, and said they were docked for leave without pay – which they felt was retaliation for feeling unsafe.
“I am sure the union will get me the money eventually after a long grievance process,” they said. “It is just the principal of the matter.”
When the Ohio employee returned to work on April 6 after their leave, they said their office did have hand sanitizer, surgical masks, gloves and wipes, but not everyone’s temperature was taken. It was also announced that carriers would start staggering work by two hours in order to maintain proper social distancing, they said, but it still wasn’t enough.
“Out of the 30-plus people there this morning, I and two others were the only ones with masks on in the office and nothing was ever mentioned about the fatalities of fellow carriers in New York or the recent death of the mail handler in Detroit,” they said, adding that carriers were responsible for sanitizing their own vehicles and were instructed not to let businesses or senior-living facilities take their temperatures. “We are also not being updated as to our number of positive cases within the company.”
Partenheimer confirmed that employees aren’t allowed to submit to temperature readings or medical questionnaires as a condition of delivery, “because temperature readings and medical questionnaires are currently considered confidential medical information.”
“Under the Rehabilitation Act and the Privacy Act, specific employee medical information must be kept confidential and may only be shared in very limited circumstances,” Partenheimer said.
Partenheimer also confirmed that carriers are responsible for maintaining vehicles and workstations, and that the USPS has instructed drivers “to clean frequently touched surfaces regularly.”
“All required supplies were made available to employees on a daily basis,” Partenheimer told Business Insider. “When supplies need to be replenished, every effort was and is being made to expedite the orders.”
A month ago, the NALC union was talking about the claimed lack of supplies promised by the USPS. While the service agreed to provide certain provisions during the coronavirus pandemic, the union said in a March 25 update – daily cleaning supplies for offices and vehicles, hand sanitizer and other clearing supplies for carriers, and masks and gloves for any employee who requested them – much of that promise wasn’t being fulfilled.
“We have received almost 3,000 reports from all over the country regarding these issues,” the union statement from March said. “In some places, all of these things are being done. However, in too many places they are not.
“In the places where there are not enough supplies, or none at all, it is generally due to the overall shortage of these items throughout the country. USPS has been working to acquire more items, even authorizing local managers to purchase them if they could be found.”
In the April 17 update, the NALC indicated that the problem hadn’t been fixed entirely, saying that the NALC was “in constant communication and negotiation with management” about “supplies, equipment, policies, protocols, and work procedures necessary to keep letter carriers safe.”
When asked about the claims of supply shortages, Partenheimer told Business Insider that the USPS “worked through some early supply-chain issues – the same issues faced by others across the country – and [is] making sure the supplies and equipment are getting to all areas.”
The NALC told members to immediately contact the union if they saw issues in the workplace, many of which were mentioned by the employees who reached out to Business Insider. Those issues included, emphasis ours:
Please continue to contact us with any questions, and to report offices that are not being sanitised on a regular basis, that do not have sufficient supplies (hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, masks, gloves, etc.), that are not following Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) protocols for employees to be quarantined, that have not implemented social distancing practices, that are not providing daily communication regarding stand-up talks, safety precautions, and instances of infection in the building, that expect employees to work without protection or in an unsanitized environment, or that have any other issues that put employees at increased risk.
The union added in that same update that the USPS had recently agreed to provide N95 masks to employees who are more vulnerable to the virus and request such equipment.
That’s in addition to an April 2 update from the USPS, which said it would: ensure “millions of masks, gloves and cleaning and sanitizing product are available and distributed to more than 30,000 locations every day”; ensure appropriate social distancing at facilities; update cleaning policies to meet CDC guidelines; allow “allow liberal use of leave” for employees; allow those who can work remotely to do so; and issue “a daily cadence of employee talks, articles, videos, and other communications to ensure employees have the latest information and guidance.”
Neither the NALC nor the APWU responded to a list of questions sent over by Business Insider.
But as both employees and the unions have pointed out, not all of those protection promises from the USPS have panned out yet.
Still, the Ohio employee said, people rely on the work of USPS employees – from those looking for medication to local restaurants sending out deal fliers to stay afloat and those relying on an income by making masks and selling them. And even amid a “toxic” work environment that requires the right mental attitude to stick with, they said, “the good outweighs the bad.”
“I love my job and my customers, and I take pride in going out of my way for them everyday,” they said. “We are essential.
“But if I can’t ensure my own safety, I can’t ensure my customers’ safety either.”
Are you a USPS employee with a story to share about the coronavirus pandemic? Contact the reporter at [email protected].
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