Self-isolation doesn't do much if I deliver the virus to your house

I feel grossly ill-equipped for doing the job safely

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Twelve days later I checked back in with our friend the postal carrier to see if things have improved. Turns out not so much.

What’s changed since we last spoke?

A week after you and I talked they got the message about the sick leave and riding people on attendance, but at the same time the union steward, that same day, was filing grievances for attendance issues. Nationally they’ll say one thing, but locally it takes time to trickle down.  They did expand out non-career employees allowance on sick leave. There’s temporary sick leave for the next two months, but it will disappear once this is over. They've expanded what you can use it for, but that doesn’t matter because, like I said, they're still using discipline. I can't say that’s the case nationally, but that stuff is not sticking in supervisor’s minds locally. 

What about supplies? Has that gotten any better?

They’ve been stocking up on masks and hand sanitizer, but they’re also giving us CDC guidelines that say masks are useless unless you're’ also sick. They're giving us a mask and saying hey you're not supposed to be using them. 

Is anyone at your office sick?

Not at our office that I know of, but the town I deliver in, last I checked, had two official cases. Our town is notorious as an international travel place. The people who live here are constantly in and out of the country, so who knows how many cases. 

You mentioned your wife?

My wife is diabetic, so she’s at risk for this disease. I don't know the exact numbers but it’s like six to seven times more likely to be hospitalized. Even though we’re both in our thirties, that guideline has stuck with her. She hasn’t left the house since the school closed where she works as social worker. Her last day was ten, eleven days ago. 

What’s morale like at work?

Most of the guys here, 30-40%, are within the guidelines for people who shouldn't be out. But most of them have such a cavalier attitude, like they’ve been doing it so long, they think nothing is going to shut them down, so fuck it, it’s nihilistic. 

What do you want leadership to do?

They need to have a better idea of what goes into the job. A lot of their guidance doesn't fit well with the logistics of the job. It’s wash your hands, don’t touch your face. I touch like 2,500 pieces of mail a day. Any of them could be a vector for sick employees anywhere else. What good does telling me to wash my hands do? I don’t know which piece is the one. 

I would ideally like for them to be honest about sick leave. This whole friendly face telling us how much we’re cherished and loved by the community doesn’t do much if you’re also still issuing discipline. I don’t knwo how many carriers are facing this right now, but my co-worker was in a grievance about attendance two days ago. I think they need to be more flexible with people that are at risk.  They’re saying the only way you can get administrative leave is if you're tested positive. You and I know how hard it is to be tested right now. The idea that some middle class schlub is gonna be tested on a whim… It isn't gonna happen.

Any new safety measures?

The only safety measure implemented is we’re now allowed to sign for packages for customers. That started Saturday. That's the only thing they got carrier feedback on. Locally they are not taking our recommendations. There are sixty of us clocking in at 8 am, all of us standing two feet apart at the only two time clocks. We’ve asked to do staggered start times. We’ve asked if we can keep our time cards on us, so people can’t cough on them or grab one. There’s one big case where they all sit. We’re saying, hey, can I keep this on my person or desk, and they're saying no. 

What else?

One more thing to include if you want to advise actual customers: CDC says the virus doesn't last on paper for much more than twenty four-forty eight hours, but six-ten employees are probably handling each letter along its path. Best advice: handle the mail in your box carefully — bag it for a couple days if possible — and disinfect or wipe down if feasible. Especially since the average mail lover seems to be about eighty.


ORIGINAL INTERVIEW

In a memo sent out last Friday the USPS laid out guidelines relating to the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. In it they urged employees to stay home if they’re showing symptoms of the virus. “Personnel who arrive at work obviously ill, or who become ill at work with COVID-19 type symptoms should be released from work,” it explained.

“Such individuals should be advised to remain off work until they no longer have these symptoms. A medical clearance may be required from an absence actually related to COVID-19.”

The guidelines follow at least one postal carrier in Seattle being diagnosed with the virus.

But as a postal carrier in Los Angeles told me today despite increasing shutdowns of city and state services around the country he and his co-workers are being discouraged from availing themselves of paid sick days they’re entitled. I asked him to explain the potential risks as he sees them for postal workers and the public in general.

What’s going on at the USPS regarding the coronavirus?

USPS could obviously accidentally play a huge role in the spread of coronavirus. I've got word from a couple of supervisors here that regional management is badgering them to issue discipline against employees who are calling out sick, even for a day.

Is that a new policy?

No the policy to try to issue discipline for sick days isn't actually tied to the virus at all, as it's been an ongoing periodic policy of theirs, but they are making no effort to suspend it now. There's absolutely no official policy that mentions coronavirus. What I do know is they've had ongoing fights to control sick leave by disciplining anyone who is gone even one day and that continues through today. And this is concurrent with organization-wide awareness campaigns as to the severity of the virus.

They're not even mentioning to us right now the USPS plant worker or workers in Seattle who contracted it.

Wow. So despite this pandemic they’re still getting on everyone’s ass about calling out sick?

We have thirteen days paid sick leave that we are advised we can use as desired, but for the last year they've been trying to harass and discipline carriers and clerks who call out for even one day. I know for certain our local union steward has been in for a couple dozen attendance issues in just the last few months. As of today, they're still doing it. That’s concurrent with flyers going up advising us to the dangers of the spread of coronavirus.

Are you afraid of being around sick colleagues or potentially being a source of spreading the virus?

Personally, yeah. I live one town over from where I deliver and we just had our first case in the town I live in. Other than the occasional box of nitrile gloves lying around, they don't do anything for stopping the spread. The guys here kinda have a “Whatever we worked through anthrax in 2001 attitude.”

What do you think is going on? What is the issue? Is it coming from way at the top?

I think the national mandate that the mail has to go through is always first and foremost their concern, so it's hard for them to grapple with the frontline human toll. But a route picks up anywhere from a couple dozens to a couple hundred outgoing letters a day of unknown origin, and then delivers a few thousand more. I'd definitely attribute it more to tone deafness than to genuine indifference, if that makes sense.

What would you like to see happen differently?

Better safety equipment. A more thorough understanding of the risk of spread — break room flyers ain't gonna cut it. And an understanding from the district that employees playing it safe in regions with known cases shouldn't face harassment.

I wonder if it will change in the next week or so now that seemingly everything is getting shut down?

That's kind of what I wondered. It starts to snowball, and I think they'll have to respond.

Anything else you want people to know about this?

I would just want emphasis on how many people can be sickened by a single clerk or mailman, I guess. I probably personally serve about 3,000 people a day? And these semi-invisible logistics networks are just the perfect place to have an accidental spread. I'm kind of at a loss for what to recommend because a lot of what we deliver is pretty essential shit, but at the same time I feel grossly ill-equipped for doing the job safely and now have the added burden of knowing a district wonk is tapping a clipboard somewhere about attendance numbers.

A lot of the crowd that's been doing self quarantine or being advised not to go in crowded places, especially at risk folks, are going to turn to relying on home delivery. Self-isolation doesn't do much if I deliver the virus to your house. That's us, that's Amazon, that's FedEx, etc. I don’t know much about FedEx, but I sure know Amazon's delivery guys are mostly contractors, and so are about 20% of mail carriers for that matter, who have even less attendance flexibility than I do.

How gross is the mail in general would you say?

I'm not a hypochondriac for the most part, but I wash my hands several times a shift even in good seasons and the dirt comes off in sheets. We have some training around handling the obvious gross stuff, like sticky things, leaking things, etc. But viruses? Nah.