Pandemic takes toll on U.S. Postal Service; workers continue to bear the brunt

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By Stephanie Gadlin

Special to the Crusader

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night may be able to slow the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), but federal cuts, a reduction in its workforce and an ineradicable pandemic have caused delays in mail delivery that has brought the service to a crawl. To add insult to injury, the strange and glaring red locks on stand-alone mailboxes throughout the city’s Black community are vivid reminders that something beyond the virus is amidst.

The U.S. Department of Labor shows the global pandemic has ravaged the U.S. workforce causing 1 in 4 employees to work and sending 31.3 million people toward the unemployment line.

USPS has seen 60 postal workers die from symptoms related to COVID-19 according to statistics made available by government agencies. Nearly 2,500 have tested positive for the coronavirus-related disease, while 17,000—or 3 percent of the USPS workforce most of whom cannot work remotely—have been sent home on quarantine.

That, along with the removal of sorting equipment from post offices around the country, denying overtime pay and a delay in hiring and the onboarding of new staff, have caused a backlog of mail delivery. While first-class mail has slowed, items sent via second-class mail, such as the weekly Chicago Crusader or those sent at a bulk-rate, might not be delivered for weeks on end.

The service told lawmakers that after the pandemic hit in early March, mail declined 30 percent. By the end of June, the agency said volume had dropped to 50 percent putting the postal service in the crosshairs of a workforce crisis and a loss in revenue.

Retired letter carrier Jerri-Lynn Johnson said the delays are a direct result of the pandemic and the continued effort by some politicians to defund the postal service. The South Side native spent 37 years working for USPS, mainly at the Jackson Park branch, 700 E. 61st Street, before retiring February 2018.

JERRI-LYNN JOHNSON (pictured above) is a retired letter carrier who recently shared her insights and concerns about the U.S. Postal Services with the Chicago Crusader.

“The pandemic hit (USPS) hard,” Johnson said. “People called off sick, many of whom were afraid of catching the virus. That left a lot of people without clerks to deliver mail. Those that didn’t take sick days worked double shifts just to keep up. All of my friends who are still serving said it also didn’t help that the postmaster general had the sorting machines removed.

“That means someone has to sort all of that mail by hand,” Johnson said. “That is humanly impossible in a metropolis like Chicago. When people call in sick, the routes become overwhelmed because there’s fewer people, or in some cases, no people to actually deliver the mail. The workers who are there do their regular routes for eight hours now have to do another person’s route. This has them doing 12-hour days. It’s overwhelming.”

Mack Julion, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 11, echoed those remarks earlier this summer. “They (carriers) are doing this job with their hands tied behind their back,” he said during a news conference. “It is a combination of the organizational system, failed policy issues of the Chicago post office, understaffing and decisions made about delivery. Start times for carriers have been pushed back and not having adequate resources to cover the area. We had low staffing levels before, and the pandemic has exposed these issues.”

Adding to the public scrutiny is the surge in mail-in ballots expected to be cast in this year’s presidential election. More than 80 million voters are expected to vote by mail to avoid polling places and the risk of being exposed to COVID-19, which has claimed 184,083 lives in the U.S. as of this report.

A global pandemic has ravaged the post office, but hasn’t stopped the Postmaster General Louis DeJoy from telling Congress he will move forward with his plan to cut services, close locations, remove processing machines and other changes until after the Nov. 3 election. And though Congress has shelled out an initial $2.2 trillion in pandemic relief, USPS has yet to receive a bailout.

DeJoy’s blatant alleged attacks on USPS came before Minority Leader Senator Charles E. Schumer’s (D-NY) demand for an investigation into his $75 million investment in private postal companies, such as United Parcel Service (UPS), JB Hunt and XPO Logistics, a postal contractor.

USPS employs about 630,000 workers and serves 160 million homes, businesses and other delivery points. It receives no funding from taxpayers.

Calling the smooth delivery of mail a matter of “life and death,” in a letter to DeJoy, congressional leaders, including U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th) and U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (1st), pressed the urgency to protect the postal service during the pandemic.

“The House is seriously concerned that you are implementing policies that accelerate the crisis at the Postal Service, including directing post offices to no longer treat all election mail as first-class. If implemented now, as the election approaches, this policy will cause further delays to election mail that will disenfranchise voters and put significant financial pressure on election jurisdictions,” the leaders wrote.

Johnson delivered mail throughout the city but spent most of her years of service delivering to Woodlawn, Hyde Park and some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. “Even though I had to deal with the possibility of getting caught in gunfire or bitten by dogs or finding drugs hidden in mailboxes, the rewards outweigh the risk,” she said. “I got to meet a lot of great customers and when you’re on a route as long as I was you become a part of their extended family. [USPS] is a great career, and it has offered a lot of career longevity (in our community).

“What’s happening now is troubling, and it angers me to see this going down like this,” she continued. “I talk to my friends everyday who are still out there doing the best they can.”

Today, 21 percent of USPS workers are African American. Though Mary “Stagecoach” Fields has been recorded as the nation’s first Black star route mail carrier, the largest hires of Blacks began in post-Civil War 1865—some 63 years after Congress proclaimed “after the 1st day of November next, no other than a free white person shall be employed in carrying the mail of the United States, on any of the post-roads, either as a post-rider or driver of a carriage carrying the mail.”

After President Roosevelt banned discrimination in federal hiring, the number of African Americans receiving postal jobs increased significantly.

The General Accounting Office reports the Postal Service has accumulated $160.9 billion in debt, in part, because of a 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act deal to prepay health and retiree benefits at a cost of about $5.6 billion per year. The U.S. Department of Treasury has yet to approve a $10 billion loan to the agency through the Cares Act, which would ensure employees are paid through March 2021.

A postal worker delivering in the 60621 zip code and who asked not to be named for this story, put it simply, “They’re trying to break us down, but we’re going to keep going, keep fighting,” the person said.

Earlier this month, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul joined 13 other attorney generals in a federal lawsuit declaring spending cuts and equipment removal as illegal.

The Rona Reports are stories of Black resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of Chicago’s Black newspapers with a citywide distribution our mission is to provide readers with factual news and in-depth coverage of its impact in the Black community. The Rona Report is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network grant.

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