Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at email@example.com
The economy has shut down, but Franklin is still making his daily rounds. As a rural mail carrier, he spends his days driving around the Columbus, Ohio area, delivering packages that serve as many people’s connection to the world beyond their front door.
But the post office itself is on life support. You might assume the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is doing a roaring trade these days due to the influx of online commerce. But the USPS, which employs some 630,000 people, is both extremely overburdened and chronically underfunded, despite mail carriers being deemed “essential” workers.
At work, Franklin (a pseudonym, since he is concerned about the repercussions of speaking out about his employer) said the postmaster bought hand sanitizer and masks for the workers—he considers his workplace to be better equipped than most post offices—but he is still heavily exposed on his route.
“Outside, I’m more concerned about my customers [than about my own workplace],” he said. He often parks his truck to deliver to a cluster of mailboxes at an apartment complex, and he will encounter many passersby—only about half of whom are wearing masks, he estimates. Recently he printed out signs to warn people to stay away from the mailbox area until he is done depositing the mail.
Despite the health hazards inherent to his job, Franklin still believes that the crisis has proven how much the USPS remains an integral part of people’s lives: “I’ve definitely seen that people are using the post office a lot more since all of this has been going on.” Not that all mail is essential. Sometimes, he said, “I feel . . . that I’m wasting my time, exposing myself to [the virus while] delivering junk mail and ads.”
On the other hand, he continued, with so many government offices closed to the public, “the post office is the only way for the government to actually communicate legal matters and stuff like that . . . we’ve been delivering court notices, and paperwork that needs to be signed.” The USPS also plays a crucial role in delivering prescription medicines, particularly for housebound people during a massive public health crisis.
As frontline workers, mail carriers have been pummeled by the pandemic. Franklin estimates about half of his coworkers are over the age of fifty, which means many face heightened risks if they continue to work. Overall, hundreds of mail carriers have tested positive for COVID-19, and the mounting health concerns have prompted a petition drive for hazard pay.
Meanwhile, business at the post office is terrible. While Amazon pumps many of its orders into the postal service for cheap last mile delivery, they still often use private carriers like UPS, or their own delivery service. So the revenue generated from those packages does not offset the decline in letter mailing over the years. According to Rep. Gerry Connolly of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, mail volume is dwindling as the flow of mailed advertising dries up, and the USPS is set to hemorrhage as much as 60 percent of its operating funds by the year’s end. (The USPS is mostly not directly taxpayer funded, and instead runs on revenue earned from mail services.)
In negotiating over the coronavirus stimulus package, House lawmakers had proposed a funding infusion of $25 billion, but the final $2.2 trillion relief legislation offered only a $10 billion loan, which would only mire the USPS deeper in debt. The agency’s coffers could reportedly be empty by September. The American Postal Workers Union denounced the stimulus package for failing to shore up one of the most indispensable federal services.
Progressive lawmakers have pushed for a bailout of the USPS, along with modernizing and expanding services. Labor advocates fear Republicans are simply setting up the agency to fail in hopes of eventually privatizing it.
“Unless they come up with some kind of permanent solution, it’s just going to always be in this struggle for survival, where we can’t afford to invest in the infrastructure that we need to become more efficient, or more safe,” Franklin said.
The broken federal funding system is reflected in the spotty safety conditions at post offices. Franklin noted that his postmaster bought hand sanitizer and protective supplies on his own, but at “other offices, where there aren’t stores around to buy these supplies from, they can’t get these things . . . How come the post office didn’t have access to some kind of national procurement system for this kind of thing? I thought the government should’ve been prepared for that situation.”
For better or worse, postal workers are still delivering; Franklin just wishes his trade were better appreciated.
I would say that postal workers are some of the toughest, hardest-working people I’ve ever met in my entire life. I started working at my office part-time to get through college. But I stuck around here for seven years now. . . . And I made it a career for myself, because I enjoy the people that I work with, and I like hard work in my life.
And when people see their mail carrier, he added, “Just let us put the mail in the mailbox, and then you can come get it. We like seeing you. But you can wave from the door, and we can talk.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.