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Sneeze guards, toilet paper, and visits from lonely seniors: Running a post office during the pandemic

More people than ever are shopping online — and to meet their needs, postal workers are taking big risks.

A USPS letter carrier crosses a quiet Boylston Street with greatly reduced foot and vehicle traffic in Boston on March 18, 2020.
One of the few groups of people still required to be out on the streets every day during the pandemic? Postal workers.
Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In rain, heat, or dark, postal work is an essential service that’s playing an important role as regions in the US and around the world go on lockdown to try to slow the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. People across the US are relying on the USPS — and to meet their needs, post office workers are taking big risks.

While more and more people are being instructed to stay home and most nonessential retail stores have closed, post offices have remained open and mail carriers are continuing to deliver mail and packages to residences. Online sales of consumer packaged goods rose 91 percent year over year in the US during the week ending March 14, according to Nielsen, and that data doesn’t even capture what’s happened as more US metro areas have issued stay-at-home orders in the weeks since.

While the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said there is currently no evidence of the virus spreading through the mail or packages, at least one study has found that the novel coronavirus can remain on surfaces such as cardboard and plastic for at least a day, and sometimes more. Translation: This is a fast-moving situation that carries a lot of unknowns for anyone receiving mail and packages, but also for those handling them. What we do know is that leaving your house at all and interacting with people in post offices or mail sorting centers and on door-to-door postal carrier routes can increase the risk of contracting the virus. On top of this, some postal workers have said they’ve been pressured to work despite having coronavirus symptoms.

Across the world, the pandemic has tested economies and the supply chains that power them, from manufacturers trying to keep up with the demand for hand soap and toilet paper to the delivery drivers transporting those goods the final miles to customers’ doors. For the United States Postal Service (USPS), the agency and its workers find themselves in an especially precarious position. The service, on one side, is a federal agency required to serve residents no matter how remote the locale. At the same time, it’s competing with private shipping carriers like FedEx, UPS, and its frenemy Amazon, which relies on the USPS for Sunday delivery while at the same time aggressively ramping up its own Amazon delivery network.

Not surprisingly, the postal service ran nearly $9 billion in the red in its 2019 fiscal year, as modest package delivery volume increases could not make up for decreasing volume in first-class mail. And the pandemic is expected to make things worse: USPS officials have warned that the crisis could lead to a “rapid drop in mail volumes and a significant loss in needed revenues.”

What is it like for postal employees working through this pandemic and how has the pandemic changed — perhaps in lasting ways — how people use the mail service? Recode spoke to a postmaster who runs a midsize post office in the northeastern US to find out. The 30-year veteran of the USPS spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press.

Are you and your carriers scared at all of working through this? And if so, why are you all still coming to work?

We are all worried; I wouldn’t say scared. To be honest, we are all worried for our families more so than ourselves. We are all coming to work because we serve the public. Yeah, we don’t like delivering stupid crap, but in this time if we can deliver anything that puts a smile on someone’s face, God bless them! Believe me, none of us are working right now because we have to. People can say what they want about the post office, but they have told us: “If for any reason you don’t want to work” — stress, etc. — “take the time off.”

Do you get paid if you want to take off because of stress or being concerned?

If you have [accumulated] sick leave or personal leave, you would get paid. If you test positive, you would get paid. If [it’s] stress and you used up all your leave, then [you’d be] just [Family and Medical Leave Act] protected, but no pay.

I have over a year of sick leave saved and 19 weeks of personal time, so personally I could be out until almost until July 4, 2022, on stress or anxiety. But the USPS is taking good care of us. I do have a carrier, not tested, but [who] had contact with someone who just tested positive this weekend; we gave him the 14 days off paid, even though he has zero leave saved. He wanted to work but we said stay home, we’ll pay you, but follow the 14 days just in case.

What precautions are you taking when interacting with customers inside the post office? Has customer traffic slowed at all, and what kinds of things are customers still visiting the post office for?

I’ve installed sneeze guards. Like most places that are still open ... [we’ve added an] “X” [on] the floor every 6 feet. Customer traffic has slowed but not as much as you would think. We actually had a customer come in telling me he was self-quarantined! I told him if he was, he wouldn’t be in here. He said, “Well, I’m still going to run my regular errands, I’m just not having people over.”

People are still express-mailing toilet paper; we had a customer express-mail it at a cost of $155 for six rolls. But then we have customers coming in just to ask if we are open, or if we are closing. Most people just want to get out of their house. That is why [the pandemic] isn’t going to go away anytime soon; people don’t really seem to be taking it seriously.

[US federal guidelines for the pandemic include urging people who feel sick and all senior citizens and those with serious underlying health conditions to stay home. But many cities and states have implemented even stricter rules, including “shelter in place” orders, which typically require all people to stay home at all times, except to get food or medicine or to work at jobs deemed by local governments to be essential.]

What do you think customers still should and shouldn’t be going to their local post office for?

We can sell stamps by mail; you can forward your mail, hold your mail, change your address online — yet we have many people coming in every day for those services. Mailing a package is all you should be coming in for, unless you have a post office box. We can even pick up your mail and packages at your house or business!

[You can schedule mail or package pickup here.]

What trends, if any, are you seeing in the online shopping orders your carriers are delivering? Essential goods? Nonessential goods? Can you give some examples?

I would say 80 percent nonessentials. I was disgusted with that last week, but, as this goes on, I would rather have people order silly things online rather than going [to a store] and possibly giving or receiving the virus.

But, yeah, seeing chair covers, Razor scooters, bathroom shelves, hemorrhoid cream, potato chips, cases of energy drinks — just a lot of nonessentials coming through.

What types of items do you think people should and shouldn’t be ordering online right now, if any?

I know since we last emailed it has gotten crazier and more restrictive, so anything anybody wants, I would say just order it [instead of going to a store]. Let’s keep the public safe.

What do you want to get across to post office customers and online shoppers that they don’t seem to understand right now?

Stay at home means stay at home. I have a sweet old lady that has come in every day for one stamp. We keep telling her, “Just buy a book” of stamps, but she says she likes coming in and has nothing else to do anyway.

There have been reports of carriers being told to come to work despite flu-like symptoms unless they have either positive test results or doctor notes. What guidance are you getting on this from USPS HQ and what are you telling your carriers if they don’t feel well?

The USPS is doing great — at least where I am — telling us if anyone feels sick or even stressed, tell[ing] them to stay home and report when better. Anyone that tests positive is to stay out the 14 days and will be paid. I don’t know about other [regions], but ours is really pro-employees right now, more than ever in my 30-plus years with the service.

[While this postmaster has positive words for USPS management, more than 80,000 people have signed a petition urging USPS leadership to take further steps to address worker concerns, such as time-and-a-half hazard pay and pausing direct delivery to facilities such as nursing homes.]

What cleaning or personal care supplies has USPS HQ made available to your office and your carriers? Is it enough? What are your carriers doing to protect themselves (and potentially customers)?

Cleaning supplies are running low. My office has enough for a few weeks, and we are getting some hand sanitizer from a local distillery. We have gloves and masks available. I am getting an infrared thermometer Monday to take employees’ temperatures, but that is out of my own pocket. Many postmasters up here are buying and building our own sneeze guards for the retail window, as HQ isn’t supplying them. The main reason it isn’t enough is that the public isn’t taking [social distancing] serious[ly]. We have customers coming in just to hang out because nothing else is open and they just want to get out of the house.

What would you want to get across to USPS HQ that you haven’t been able to or fear saying?

We all wish the retail window [for post offices] would shrink hours to protect exposure, but so far that is falling on deaf ears. Going to a five-day delivery week, or possibly delivering packages seven days (as we are currently doing) and “mail” every other day is an option we would like to see in the field as well, as that would decrease exposure for both employees and customers. HQ and [administrative] staff are working from home, so there is a slight disconnect.

How much coordination is there overall between USPS and each post office on issues surrounding Covid-19? What guidelines are being given, if any?

Every office receives CDC guidelines and Covid-19 communications daily, but we really lean on neighboring offices for resources.

What long-term impact, if any, will this pandemic have on your post office and how it and your carriers work?

I see sneeze guards being a way of life for all retail [stores], supermarkets, [and] gas stations from now on. Better personal hygiene. Maybe those and other things we learn will help us against future viruses.

What, if anything, do you think the government should be doing differently than it is today?

Listen to the health experts and stay locked down. If we open up too early, the economy will only be worse.