Postal Service forced to keep working despite shortages of cash and protection

(CNN)United States Postal Service workers, who are still delivering and sorting mail at distribution centers around the country even as millions of Americans telecommute, are worried that they may not have the protection — or even the funding — they will need to keep delivering mail for months longer.

Just like hospitals, post offices are facing critical shortages of essential products to protect them from the coronavirus outbreak — one union for US Postal Service workers said this week it has heard thousands of concerns from its members related to coronavirus.
Reports have popped up across the country where postal workers say they don’t have hand sanitizer, gloves or masks, and are being told to work despite illnesses and are looking to community donations to address supply shortfalls.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, who oversees the US Postal Service in his role as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s government operations subcommittee, said he has heard directly from the mail carriers that they are not getting the protection they need while on the job.
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“I had a conference call two or three days ago. I heard loud and clear concerns they had for their exposure. They cannot telework. They have to deliver the mail and sort the mail. They have to put the mail in mailboxes either at the post office or at people’s homes and businesses,” Connollly said. “They are complaining that in the workplace itself they are given no protective gear to help minimize the risk that has them very concerned.”
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said postal workers in her region have said they don’t have hand sanitizer or materials needed to keep post offices disinfected.
But it’s not just the current work conditions putting postal workers — and the mail millions depend on — at risk.
For years, USPS has struggled to stay afloat with the emergence of technology threatening their bottom line, but coronavirus has further strained their financial situation as mail volume has declined. The Postal Service has warned that it could be insolvent by June, the House Oversight Committee said this week.
Democrats working behind the scenes tried to inject $25 billion into the US Postal Service in the stimulus bill, a quick infusion of cash intended to keep the post office operating even as business slowed. Democrats had also pushed for a debt forgiveness program, but neither item made it into the bill.
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Instead, the final bill included $10 billion in loans that have to be approved by the Treasury Department.
The Postal Service said in a statement that the funding in the legislation was appreciated, but warned that the measure was insufficient because the lost revenue due to a “rapid drop in mail volumes” during the coronavirus pandemic is putting the future of the Postal Service at risk.
“The Postal Service remains concerned that this measure will be insufficient to enable the Postal Service to withstand the significant downturn in our business that could directly result from the pandemic,” said USPS spokesman David Partenheimer. “Under a worst case scenario, such downturn could result in the Postal Service having insufficient liquidity to continue operations.”
The National Association of Letter Carriers, a union for USPS delivery workers, said in a statement that the legislation was “woefully inadequate.”
Connolly blasted his Republican colleagues for the lack of funding given the billions infused to other industries — including the airlines.
“What would happen tomorrow in the wake of this pandemic if the Postal Service announced tomorrow that they were going out of businesses and they were laying off all their workers?” Connolly said.
The Postal Service has 630,000 employees across the country, making it one of the largest US government agencies. USPS said Friday that 111 of its employees have tested positive for coronavirus, and one letter carrier died in New York.
As millions shelter in place to wait out the coronavirus, the mail is a lifeline to distribute critical medicine and supplies to those who are homebound. It also will play a major role in helping distribute millions of checks to individuals and businesses who receive cash from the federal government as part of its historic stimulus program.
In a statement pushing for more funding, the House Oversight Committee argued that the system helped to deliver more than a billion prescription drug orders last year. In rural areas, the committee said the Postal Service may be one of the only ways that individuals can get the items they need. The committee also warned that more than a quarter of all US votes in recent elections were distributed through the mail, meaning a loss in funding could result in a disenfranchisement in voting for Americans.
“All that did was lift the cap a little bit on their current loan credit line, but it comes with conditionality,” Connolly said. “They don’t need more credit. They need debt forgiveness and an injection of liquidity to keep operating.”
The fight over the Postal Service is likely to continue, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled House Democrats were already turning to the next legislation even before President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion bill on Friday afternoon.
But for postal workers, the more immediate concern is safety as coronavirus spreads across the country.
The NALC wrote in a letter to its members that it had fielded nearly 3,000 reports of issues across the country related to coronavirus, though it noted that USPS was receiving orders of hand sanitizers this week being distributed into the field.
“In the places where there are not enough supplies, or none at all, it is generally due to the overall shortage of these items throughout the country,” wrote NALC President Fredric Rolando. “USPS has been working to acquire more items, even authorizing local managers to purchase them if they could be found.”
The American Postal Workers Union said it was concerned about the “distribution of personal protective equipment and sanitizers has been uneven across the country.”
Partenheimer said the USPS was working urgently to acquire and ship additional supplies, and that it was “making gloves and surgical masks available to all employees that request them.”
“We are actively encouraging any employee who feels they are sick to stay home,” the USPS spokesman said.
Some of the supply issues for the Postal Service can be attributed to the broader supply crunch that has hospitals scrambling for supplies and Federal Emergency Management Agency working to fill orders.
Noble, a Boston-based distributor that contracts with the federal government, has 1,000 orders for back-logged for N95 masks for the Postal Service, the type most recommended to protect against the virus.
CEO Tom Noble said the company can’t fill the orders because FEMA is buying face masks directly from 3M — rather than relying on its usual distributors, putting FEMA at the front of the line and ahead of orders like Noble’s.
The backlog “bumps everybody to the right,” Noble said. “That’s not a normal chain of events for the market itself.”
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