Skip to main content

A Letter Carrier's Guide to the Coronavirus

Mel Carriere is a full time mailman, part time hack, still pumping out words during the pandemic, so far so slippery the bug can't catch him

This SoCal letter carrier feverishly goes about his business, dodging dogs, and now, trying to avoid invisible, microscopic biters too.

This SoCal letter carrier feverishly goes about his business, dodging dogs, and now, trying to avoid invisible, microscopic biters too.

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.

The President smugly assures you the crisis will be over by Easter, but the Governor says hunker down for the long haul.  Who do you believe?

The President smugly assures you the crisis will be over by Easter, but the Governor says hunker down for the long haul. Who do you believe?

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.

Though aesthetically beautiful, the coronavirus probably won't do pretty things to your lungs if you get it.

Though aesthetically beautiful, the coronavirus probably won't do pretty things to your lungs if you get it.

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.

Will this plague of parcels of Biblical proportions cause you to succumb to the cruel realities of coronavirus?

Will this plague of parcels of Biblical proportions cause you to succumb to the cruel realities of coronavirus?

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.

PS Form 1767 can be used to report unsafe working conditions in your Post Office. Get it via the link below.

PS Form 1767 can be used to report unsafe working conditions in your Post Office. Get it via the link below.

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.

The sign is faded, but its message is not.  Pay heed.

The sign is faded, but its message is not. Pay heed.


Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on July 04, 2020:

I wear a mask, James, but many of my coworkers do not. Sadly, I think it has become a matter of political affiliation, which is a sad reflection of our current leadership. Definitely mask wearing is supposed to be mandatory for postal workers, but my station manager is very arbitrary about enforcing the rule.

I appreciate you dropping by. Be safe, your Uber driving must have an increased element of risk during these times.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on July 04, 2020:

I was reminded of something while reading this, especially the part where you mentioned the P.O. mask policy. I notice that for the most part the carriers I see in my area dont wear mask. Just an observation.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 01, 2020:

Thank you Rochelle those are really kind words. I hope you stay well during these times. Blessings to you too.

Rochelle Ann De Zoysa from Moratuwa, Sri Lanka on April 01, 2020:

Dealing with an invisible enemy it is better to be safe than being sorry. This article showed a side that I wasn't aware of. Thank you. Hope you are safe and healthy. Take care and God bless you!

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Thank you Mills. You just opened up that can of worms that I was afraid to go to. Your thoughts echo mine 100 percent. The man is incapable of admitting that anybody knows more about anything than he does. A leader is not someone who has to think of all the good ideas himself. A leader is like glue - he brings diverse minds and abilities together into a cohesive whole, then makes a decision by weighing many different expert opinions. But this man is too emotionally immature to realize that, he has the psyche of a five year old, and that is frightening in a President. Not just frightening, but dangerous. Thanks for dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Thank you kimbesa. We have been getting a lot of love and support during this crisis. I think people see us as a lifeline. I really appreciate you dropping in with the nice words.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on March 30, 2020:

The President does not take this issue anywhere near as seriously as he should. He'd now like to get to "business as usual" by the end of April, which I don't see happening. He dragged his heels, blamed the Chinese, and dismantled the pandemic response unit two years ago. His narcissism angers me as the number of infections rises. He snipes at Democrats more than he listens to their legitimate concerns. I'm not a Mike Pence fan, but at least he's reaching out to the various states, unlike his boss. We all know things are going to get worse before they get better. I get the feeling that the long haul will b longer than it should be because the man at the top thought only about himself and his own interests. It sounds like your own boss needs to rethink her stance as well. Keep being safe and well.

kimbesa from USA on March 30, 2020:

Love it, Mel! So entertaining to read and please know that I am a sincerely appreciative customer of USPS. I stay home for you!

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Thank you Road Monkey. So far here in Southern California there is not a lot of waving off, everybody is treating this like a big vacation. You can bet that when people get their first sick person in their family or among their friends the abstraction will become a reality and people will take this seriously. I appreciate you dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Thank you Linda. I am doing my best to dodge the little viruses but they are so tiny it is hard to see them. I hope you are doing your best to stay well up in lovely British Columbia. I appreciate you dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Thank you Davika we are all alone together they are saying or something like that. I hope you are doing well in beautiful Croatia. Thanks for dropping in and stay safe.

RoadMonkey on March 30, 2020:

Yes, it is very worrying when you get mixed messages. I would be VERY annoyed if the message being passed down were to be diluted by management trying to keep staff in place, through fear or ignorance. There are two camps here, one where people are holed up, disinfecting every piece of mail that comes near the door and the others who stride around forgetting all about the virus, with others trying to wave them away to 6 feet distance!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 30, 2020:

This is an interesting article that contains important information. "Beware, but don't jump at shadows" sounds like great advice. I like your use of the word "currently" with respect to the official information and advice, too. It's frustrating that we don't know enough about the virus, but on the other hand it's good that many researchers are investigating it. I hope you stay safe, Mel.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 30, 2020:

Hi Mel it is a nightmare and a risk to everyone and your job must have a risk too. You have enlightened me on a what you are capable of and of the risk you have take care and keep safe.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Thank you Ann. As I was doing some research on this, I discovered I had to be balanced because there are so many unknowns still. I am glad you noticed the balance.

Well, I was just telling Bill down there I expected to be called into work any moment and I just got that call so I'm off.

Thank you for your great visit and please stay safe.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Thank you Bill. I am sheltering in place today on my day off because they haven't called me into work... yet. I expect that phone call any minute. Hunker down there on your urban farm, thanks for dropping in.

Ann Carr from SW England on March 30, 2020:

You give a balanced view and a sensible one. As most of us are doing, we stay at home, wash our hands regularly and avoid others when we take a walk (for fresh air, exercise and sanity!).

I'm horrified when I hear Mr Trump (he doesn't merit the title 'President' in my view) opinionating on the current situation of which he appears to have little grasp. First it's one thing, then it's the opposite. At least some of his advisors seem to understand and be sensible.

Keep safe and well, Mel; you're carrying out a great service.


Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 30, 2020:

We've had the same carrier for a long, long time. I feel for him every single day. Who knows what is dangerous? Like you said, ask five professionals and you will get varying answers.

Error on the side of safe. That's the route we are taking until someone with some knowledge can actually tell us a fact or two.

Be safe my friend!

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Thank you for your support Pamela. I hope you folks there on the opposite coast are doing okay. I really appreciate you dropping in with the nice words of encouragement.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 30, 2020:

Luckily yours is a huge country John, with a lot of social distance in between people. Thanks again.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 30, 2020:

Your job does keep your working but there is surely a risk. I agree that the risk is greater for the window clerks. I appreciate all of you. I wish you had more support from management that would include some safety guidelines.

I think from all I have heard that gloves are more important then masks. I hope you stay safe during this pandemic.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on March 29, 2020:

We are ok and self-isolating other than to buy essential food or medication. The warmer parts of the country like Darwin NT only has 19 cases all in hospital quarantine and all were from direct overseas travel. We have around 4000 case total in the country and 19 deaths so far. The trouble is Winter is approaching here so hopefully the virus doesn’t worsen in the coming cooler months.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 29, 2020:

Thank you John, likewise to you. I haven't heard too much how Australia is doing during the crisis, other than the Tom Hanks affair. I have heard the warmer summer climates are holding up better, but I don't know how true that is. Hopefully you and yours are okay. Thanks for dropping in.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on March 29, 2020:

Thank you for sharing a postal worker’s perspective on this virus. Mel. Very interesting and despite rain, hail, sleet, snow or a virus pandemic it is good the mail is still being delivered. Stay safe.