A Letter Carrier's Guide to the Coronavirus
Postal Pandemic Perplexity
If you work for the United States Postal Service during the Covid 19 crisis, whether you have the bug or not you're a bit feverish, feeling like you're living on borrowed time. You consider yourself obligated to go to work because you took the oath, or maybe you are saving up your sick leave for when the big one really hits. You don't know what to do - will postal employees remain essential personnel or will post office doors be shuttered? You want answers, but all you get is rumors and innuendo. You seek concrete facts but all you get are meaningless platitudes. You go to the boss for direction but he seems more in the dark than you are. There appears to be a lack of leadership, a lack of preparation and, worst of all, a lack of concern for your well being.
Should I wear a face mask? One coworker says most definitely, another says they are useless. The point is probably moot anyway because there are none in stock. Will gloves protect me from lingering viruses on the mail? Again you get different answers from whoever you talk to, but the point is probably moot anyway because you wear size large and all they have in stock are small.
You long desperately for someone to take charge, to outline a program and implement it, even if it is not 100 percent correct, but the wishy washy leadership is exacerbated by the conflicting viewpoints of politicians in power. The President says it will be over by Easter, the Governor says be prepared to lock yourself in for the long haul. Who is right? What's really going on? Should I even go to work? Help.
Update - The data used to write this article has changed. Please monitor the latest CDC Guidelines
Coronavirus Is and Is-Nots
Unless you have been sheltering in place deep in the Canadian wilderness, where there is no television, radio or cell phone service - the only form of communication being a bush plane that brings the mail once a month, you must know what the coronavirus is by now. Perhaps a more useful introduction to how the pandemic pertains to letter carriers is to discuss what it is not. If we can dispel some of the myths about its nature and transmission here, perhaps your mind would be more at ease as you go about your daily duties.
Although it may have jumped to humans from bats, the coronavirus itself does not have wings. Nor does it have a pilots license. In other words, it cannot fly. There will be no aerial chase scene like Imperial tie fighters harrying the Millennium Falcon. It won't be after you like Harry Potter on a broomstick trying to catch the golden snitch. Coronavirus flyboys will not buzz your tower. The Coronavirus cannot engage in active pursuit, somebody has to catapult it from their lungs onto your person, basically by sneezing or coughing.
Panic mongers will tell you that this is the worst disease ever to strike human kind, that nobody will survive it, that the only way to get away is to dig a hole into the earth, but obviously stop before you get to China. Despite the hype, however, it is not the world's deadliest disease, there are still things out there that can kill you with much more certainty. Ebola is a much more fatal illness, though harder to catch. The Spanish Flu of 1918 infected a quarter of the Earth's people, then killed about 27% of those victims, demonstrating that varieties of the common flu can be butt kickers. Deaths from the SARS virus amounted to 774 out of the 8,000 people infected. You do the frightening math on that one. Lest we forget, HIV has killed 32 million people worldwide, and is taking three quarters of a million more every year. Point is, there are invisible plagues all around us, with plenty more coming down the pike from sources unknown. So don't drop your guard to those other bad things, here in your coronavirus tunnel vision.
Jumping At Shadows - Current Transmission Truths
I am simply trying to make the point that Earth is a dangerous place, and will continue to be so even after the coronavirus goes away. While postal employees should definitely take precautions, and postal managers should implement the orders given to protect those employees, is Planet Postal really that much more dangerous than in December, 2019, when we first heard about this disease?
Alas, the number of coronavirus cases is skyrocketing daily, so we can't bury our heads in the sand and pretend it is not there. At the same time, let's ask ourselves if it is necessary to go about in a constant state of acute paranoia, cringing in fear from every half truth or conspiracy theory that comes down the social media pike. Paranoia is counterproductive in any crisis, so I would say the answer to this is no. Then again, I would caution that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that the bug isn't out to get you. Coronavirus wants to commandeer your cells and turn them into virus factories that pump millions of duplicates off the assembly line. So Beware, but don't jump at shadows.
Information about the natural history of the coronavirus still lurks in these shadows, remaining fuzzy for the general public, even though the picture about the virus' method of transmission is slowly coming into focus. The portion of the big picture that letter carriers desire to distinguish above all others is whether conronavirus can be contracted by handling the mail.
There is no doubt the coronavirus persistently adheres to surfaces, its spiky structure helping it to grab on and hitch a ride on plastic, metal and paper. But does its presence on these materials mean you can catch the disease by touching them?
On the scary side, a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that the virus can survive up to 24 hours on cardboard, three times longer than its kissing cousin, SARS. But this study took place in a climate-controlled environment in which viruses remain viable for longer periods, and also dealt with aerosol particles, rather than the fine droplets that are the common mode of transfer for COVID-19.
Yes, the virus can be detected on cardboard surfaces, but the measurable amount there drops quickly as the pathogens degrade. Although there is evidence that a single virus can make you sick, infection rates are higher when there is a multitude, rather than a paucity.
Furthermore, the preferred method of transmission for the coronavirus, the one that nine out of ten choosy Covid-19 Moms surveyed selected, was respiratory droplets. While it is theoretically possible to catch the disease via other vectors, the Centers for Disease Control currently contends that:
"The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
- Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes."
The CDC also says that "People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest)." So keep your distance from sick individuals, and please don't be a hero, stay home from work and isolate yourself if you are ill.
Notwithstanding that I might be currently inclined to furrow my brow at any news coming from USPS HQ, you may be reassured to know that Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer, taking information from the Surgeon General, Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, echoes this sentiment in saying that "...there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail."
A German Federal Government study further reinforces the argument, finding that there are no known cases in which the coronavirus has been caught by touching a contaminated surface and then transferring the virus to the mouth or nose.
Feel better? Maybe a little, but don't forget that the jury is still deliberating. I suspect that coronavirus still has some bombshells to drop on us - big surprises are yet to come from this little germ. Pay attention to the key word in all of the above proclamations - currently.
Postal Pandemic Politics
Mr. Partenheimer, quoted above, also said that "The safety and well being of U.S. Postal Service Employees and customers is our highest priority." While this might be true as a pretty policy statement, promulgated for easy digestion on the six o'clock news, what is really happening behind the scenes? When directives are issued from Postal HQ are they really being implemented with the full force intended, or are they treated by lower level managers as mere guidelines, to be glossed over or cast aside in their obsession to make the number. Even in the midst of a life-threatening event, are people in power exchanging the tangible health of humans for paper abstractions?
We can start with our President, alarmed by falling stock values and rising unemployment, sending out dangerous mixed signals to the American public by ignoring the experts and burying his head in the sand. But don't get me started on that.
In order to avoid opening such a sticky can of worms, let's keep it on the postal level. I think that all, or most Postal employees can agree that we are being given dangerous mixed signals in Covid-19 messages that have been communicated to us, or rather, have not been communicated as ordered. In cases where information has been disseminated, many times it has been modified by local managers, trying to block interference with their own agendas.
To begin with, The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) swears it has been passing down daily briefs to its membership but I, a member in good standing going on 27 years, have yet to receive information from this source. Who is blocking it, and for what reason?
For instance, were you aware of the existence of the PS Form 1767, Report of Hazard, Unsafe Condition or Practice? This document is available to postal employees to report unsafe or unhealthful practices in the workplace. Among other things, it can be used to denounce management's failure to direct the daily sanitizing of case ledges, time clocks, scanners, vehicles, and all frequently touched surfaces, as dictated by headquarters. The immediate supervisor then has the obligation to respond to the unsafe condition within the tour of duty. As a reminder, postal employees are not obligated to work in unsafe conditions. But even though the top leadership of the NALC has been fervent in its efforts to remind letter carriers about these rights, very little information has leaked down to the general membership.
On the NALC website, I counted five Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) related to the coronavirus. Not all of them have been communicated to the carriers in my station, even though they are signed off by both the USPS and the Union. These recent agreements involve expanding sick leave for dependent care during the pandemic, temporarily giving additional paid leave to City Carrier Assistants, extending time limits for Step B and arbitration appeals, liberally approving changes of schedules for letter carriers affected by the COVID-19 disruption, and reinstating the 7:01 rule, whereby Letter Carriers can work seven hours and still get paid for eight.
Letter Carriers in my station did receive the news about the 7:01 rule, but in a highly diluted form. Upon reading us the document, probably heavily paraphrased for her convenience, our manager told us that "We might try it and see how it goes." She gave the impression that the instruction was optional, rather than a mandated measure designed to reduce the exposure Letter Carriers have to potentially sick customers or coworkers.
In short, it seems like Postal Management is doing a lot of free lancing when it comes to implementing the 7:01 rule and other mandates. It is up to Letter Carriers to keep current on these issues, then report any failure to disseminate, suppress or modify them to the Union office.
Don't Be Hypnotized By The Head Man's Hijinx
In my opinion, postal Window Clerks have it worse than Letter Carriers. They come face to face with the coughing, sneezing, germ-spewing public, still queuing up in the lobby to complain about letters delivered for people who moved out twenty years ago. If I had my druthers, I would shut down the postal windows completely. I would make people ship from home until the crisis is over. We're delivering practically all the accountable items anyway, so folks don't have to come in to pick those up. Nobody is going anywhere, so there is no need for a vacation hold.
As a Letter Carrier, on the other hand, over the last week the empty streets have assumed a sort of ghost-town feel. I can probably count the people I come into contact with on both hands. Secretly, please don't tell anybody, but if it wasn't for the gravity of the crisis I would say that I kind of like it. Except...I have to struggle to find a parking place sometimes, because practically everybody is home.
I'm not trying to suck up to management when I say that Letter Carrier might be one of the safer essential jobs these days. Once you escape the office you're not squished inside a cubicle, cringing next to a sick co-worker who has been hacking out pieces of his lungs all day. No, you are out in the free, open, increasingly unpolluted air.
I am very critical about one thing, however. Lately I, and probably many of you other letter carriers around the USA, have been subjected to what I consider somewhat nauseating stand-up talks. Although one of the many side effects of Covid-19 is intestinal distress, I think what I'm catching from the Postal Pulpit vector comes more from a sickening wave of words, rather than any infectious invisible organisms floating through the ether.
A common theme of said sermons, designed to be inspirational, is how I should feel grateful for having a postal job, particularly now that this crisis has sent record millions to the unemployment line, where I have no idea if they are social distancing or not.
While I certainly feel bad for these folks and pray they will be back off the dole soon, in response to the impassioned calls for gratitude from my long-winded supervisor I say - Phooey!
Grateful? Are you kidding? I've sacrificed my health at the altar of this organization. My right knee is permanently damaged from stumbling over obstacles along my mail delivery path, my shoulder is sore from the satchel, and my right elbow is subject to spasms from repeatedly setting the tight LLV emergency brake and bumping it countless times against that evil do-hickey that sticks out on the door latch. And now, instead of safely sheltering in place at home, I am being exposed to the plagues of Egypt on the street, I am at the mercy of insidious creepy-crawlies nobody understands yet.
So while I am happy, indeed proud to work for this organization, grateful is not quite the word I was looking for. My gratitude is tempered by having given more to them than they have given to me. I suspect this sermon is merely my supervisor instilling guilt to get me to work a little harder, an attempt to keep me from calling in sick when I get a tickle in my throat.
But do not be tempted! Don't succumb to your supervisor's siren song. In the long run, the general public and your coworkers, supervisors included, will be singing your praises if you stay home, rather than coming to work and infecting everybody and their pets. Don't worry, in the meantime we'll hold down the fort for you, so that both you and the USPS will both survive this nasty little coronavirus pothole in the road.