by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
Rain or shine, sleet or snow, and apparently, even with a coronavirus pandemic that has nearly shut down the U.S., one thing never stops.
With Pittsburgh, along with the rest of the country, entirely focused on the destructive COVID-19 bug that is being described by some as the “invisible enemy,” opening your front door and seeing today’s mail in your mailbox is a pleasant surprise.
But of course it wasn’t a robot that brought it to your home. It was a man or woman from the United States Postal Service, some of whom across the country are happy to get the mail to you, but angry about its employer not ensuring their safety against the coronavirus outbreak.
The New Pittsburgh Courier’s J.L. Martello on March 23 talked with Dana Harris, a Hill District resident who delivers mail on the North Side. He’s not among those who feel as though the USPS is putting him in harm’s way.
“To be honest, I feel like maybe we’re blowing it out of proportion a bit,” Harris told Martello about the coronavirus pandemic as a whole. “Of course we need to take the necessary precautions, but I feel like some people are just…too riled up about it. Take the precautions, clean up, don’t touch your face, make sure your hands are clean, sanitize, but all the buying out the stores of toilet paper, and conspiracy theories, I feel like it’s a bit much. We still have to maintain peace and some type of civility.”
But other USPS workers across the country were so fed up with the company that they placed an online petition demanding that the USPS ensures “rights and safety for employees and customers” during the pandemic.
The petition, which has more than 77,000 signatures, demanded that “employees who are at high risk (including those 65 or older, those with chronic long-term illnesses, and those with compromised immune systems) or who live with and care for high risk individuals, should be given leave with full pay for the duration of the pandemic.”
The petition also demanded “hazard pay at time and a half the rate they would otherwise be paid,” and “emergency protocols must be put in place to ensure the safety of employees and customers alike.” The petition read that direct delivery should be suspended to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, clinics and “other locations where carriers may come into contact with vulnerable populations or with people who already have the virus.”
The petition also read: “By continuing to work as normal, postal employees are put at great risk of contracting the virus and/or spreading it to customers. If the Postal Service fails to act swiftly and boldly, many employees and customers alike will die as a result, and countless more will suffer illness. The gravity of this can hardly be overstated.”
When Harris is at Pittsburgh’s Main Post Office location on the North Side, “they’ve basically pushed for more cleanliness, more frequent handwashing,” and he said that only employees can touch the scanner that weighs the mail packages at the counter. USPS management, according to Harris, holds daily service talks “on the best way to avoid catching the virus, what to do if we get the virus and how to handle the public if they ask us about the virus.”
Of the more than 325 people in Allegheny County who have tested positive for coronavirus, there have been no reports as to anyone within the local Postal Service community that’s been infected. But across the country, it’s quite the opposite. In early March, a Postal Service employee at the Seattle Network Distribution Center, in Washington state, tested positive for COVID-19.
On March 25, it was reported in Portland, Ore., media outlets that two Postal Service employees in that region have COVID-19. One of the employees is a letter carrier, the other works at the Portland Processing and Distribution Center plant.
Also on March 25, an employee who works at the Main Post Office in Tyler, Tex., tested positive for coronavirus. In a release from the USPS in that region, the employee did not have direct contact with the public, and, “We believe the risk is low for employees who work at the Tyler Main Post Office,” the release read.
And on the same day, in North Syracuse, N.Y., there were reports that an employee at the local USPS Facility and Processing Center tested positive for COVID-19.
Roughly 40 Postal Service employees have contracted coronavirus across the country, according to numerous reports.
The Courier spoke with a letter carrier based out of the East Liberty branch on March 26. She wanted to remain anonymous, but told the Courier that “we’re all concerned” when asked about fellow letter carriers possibly contracting COVID-19. She expressed that she and others, for all intents and purposes, “took an oath” to continue to get the mail to residents during these trying times.
Harris, the letter carrier for parts of the North Side, said he wasn’t as concerned about contracting the virus as he was about people “spreading misinformation. Make sure you have the right information before you spread it…that can rile people up more, cause more panic,” he told the Courier.
On March 22, the USPS released a statement that it is “offering liberal leave and have worked with our postal unions to temporarily expand leave options for our employees.”
USPS also has instructed its letter carriers to “step back a safe distance or close the screen door/door so that they may leave the item in the mail receptacle or appropriate location by the customer door.”
There is no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Surgeon General. Catching COVID-19 “from a package that has been moved, traveled, and been exposed to different conditions and temperature” is low, the World Health Organization has said. Coronaviruses have a “poor survivability” on surfaces, especially those that are on “products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” the CDC has added.
Better to be safe than sorry, though. Many local Postal Service employees are wearing gloves as they deliver the mail, or inside a post office location with the public. The Courier spotted Harris sporting a pair of black surgical gloves during his route on March 23.
Harris said more people ask him during his route these days about the latest information on the pandemic. He lets them know the latest news.
When he gets back to the Main Post Office after his route is complete, for the most part, it’s “business as usual,” he said, with one exception.
“A lot more jokes at the office,” Harris told the Courier. “People tend to laugh to keep from panicking.”
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: DANA HARRIS, a letter carrier for the North Side with the U.S. Postal Service, says he’s primarily concerned about those spreading “misinformation” about coronavirus. – Photo by J.L. Martello)