Local Postal Workers Face Safety Risks Amidst a National Debate on the Future of USPS

May 1, 2020

A post office in downtown Knoxville. The first postal worker tested positive for COVID-19 in early April.
Credit Claire Heddles / WUOT

Phase One of Knox County’s reopening plan starts today. People are heading back to work with safety at the top of their minds. Some workers though have been weathering through all along.

Standing in line at a post office in Knoxville, there’s tape on the ground marking where to stand to maintain social distancing and there is plastic in front of clerks’ desks. But essential workers such as postal clerks, mail sorters and letter carriers are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. The first postal worker tested positive in Knoxville in early April.

 

“Things started to feel a lot more real and a lot scarier after that happened,” said Alex Fields, a local letter carrier.

 

He said he’s been pretty tired lately, working extra shifts and longer hours. With some workers out sick, others are spending extra hours on the front lines.

“It's often I get to work at 6 a.m., work until 5:00, 6:00 p.m. and do that five, six, even seven days a week,” Fields said. “It's inconsistent, but there's a lot of work.”

 

In the early days of the pandemic, Fields started a Facebook group for postal workers to support each other. It now has more than 20,000 members. He said co-workers share safety plans and what to do if someone gets sick.

 

“How do you deal with this sort of safety situation? What are people doing when someone tests positive at their facility? All this sort of thing,” Fields said. “There’s also a lot of discussion that I think is just really morale-boosting, people wanting to see a sense of community or solidarity among workers at a scary time.”

Tens of thousands of postal workers nationwide have signed a petition calling for increased safety measures and hazard pay. Fields said some of these demands have been met; at least on the local level he has seen more masks and gloves available. And the post office is one of the federal agencies required to provide emergency paid sick leave to those impacted by COVID-19, but workers aren’t receiving hazard pay. But there is a larger question looming as well.

“It's still not perfect and it's still not full coverage, but it's a lot better than it was,” Fields said. “I think the bigger thing that we're now seeing is a fight for the post office with the White House.”

In an earlier version of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), USPS was set to receive a $13 billion grant to fund pandemic-related expenses. In a last-minute move before the act was signed into law, this was converted into a $10 billion loan. Last week, President Trump said he will not sign any bill that includes funding for USPS unless the agency raises prices for companies like Amazon.

 

“If they don’t raise the price I’m not signing anything. So they’ll raise the price so they become maybe even profitable, but so they lose much less money,” Trump said.

 

But many experts have disagreed with President Trump about this. Vanderbilt law professor Ganesh Sitaraman attributes this debt largely to the actions of Congress. The post office became a self-sustaining agency half a century ago, but as of 2018 was $143 billion in debt.

“We need to see that debt in the context of three things that inform the crisis of the post office today. Two of them are actually Congress' fault,” Sitaraman said. “In the mid-2000s Congress passed a law that effectively bans the post office from doing anything innovative and requires the post office to pre-fund 75 years’ worth of pension obligations.” He added that the third, most current factor is the added costs of a pandemic.

In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which mandated the USPS to prepay health and retirement benefits. But in the years since then, the Postal Service has operated at a $77.8 billion loss. A bill called the USPS Fairness Act passed the House in February and would eliminate this pre-funding requirement. 

But it hasn’t become law yet, and there is mounting financial pressure on the Postal Service. Sitaraman says a pandemic like COVID-19 has made the Postal Service more important than ever. 

 

“In the public health emergency like the one that we have now, a lot of states like Utah and Washington have already gone to, and others are starting to debate going to, a system of voting by mail rather than having people wait in line and risk spreading a virus,” Sitaraman said.

 

There are pressing demands on the post office to deliver stimulus checks, census forms and potential ballots by mail. Meanwhile, USPS hasn’t received any direct federal grants since the pandemic started. With all this, postal workers are continuing to advocate for themselves. Postal historian and former letter carrier himself, Phil Rubio says organized efforts by workers for a safer post office have a long history. It is the most unionized federal agency.

“Unions advocated over the years in terms of safety, but also postal workers themselves have taken it upon themselves when necessary to either sign petitions or make direct protests on shop floor against speeding up and other types of unsafe practices.” 

According to USPS, 1,606 of the nation’s 630,000 postal workers have tested positive for COVID-19 as of this week. Funding the post office is still being debated at the national level in the next coronavirus relief bill.

Knoxville letter carrier Alex Fields is among thousands of postal workers petitioning for better safety measures and the funding that could define the future of their jobs. 

“It is a big concern and very scary to be working during this. At the same time, I'm glad to have a job and I think the post office is an extremely important public good. I'm probably a little more worried right now about whether the post office is even going to survive,” Fields said. “Are we going to have jobs in six months?”