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A pile of reasons why your December mail stacked up at the post office | COMMENTARY

In this December 2019 file photo, postal employee Tru Wright separated packages from letters at Baltimore's Main Post Office.
In this December 2019 file photo, postal employee Tru Wright separated packages from letters at Baltimore's Main Post Office. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

This column follows up on Sunday’s lead item about the United States Postal Service and the strange and concerning appearance of Christmas cards in our late January mail. Numerous readers shared stories about receiving overdue holiday greetings — though none with more than a mild gripe in a minor key — and some speculated on the reasons for the delays.

“That’s what happens,” one reader wrote, “when the Postal Service tells their employees in early December that if they have been exposed to COVID they are entitled to two weeks’ paid leave and 40% call out. That’s from two very reliable sources. Horrible.”

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Horrible?

How about understandable?

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How about understanding that at least 40,000 postal workers have been infected with the coronavirus and 160 have died from it?

How about acknowledging that postal workers are at risk because their jobs require them to be at work — either indoors to sort or receive mail or outdoors to transport and deliver it.

How about considering the obvious: If one mail handler in a sorting facility becomes infected, many others could be at risk. As with any workplace, quarantine is required, under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On some days in December — the busiest month of the year, when postal workers usually are not allowed to take time off — up to 20,000 of the 630,000 postal workers across the country were absent from work; some had tested positive for the virus, some feared they had been exposed to it.

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“The people who quarantine, they’re not allowed to come to work,” Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), explains. “They are quarantined by the Postal Service [and] postal management has an obligation and a capacity to do a lot of the contact tracing that goes with it.

“Overall,” he added, “I think the public recognizes and appreciates that postal workers, in dangerous times, have carried out the mission with great dedication, that they worked as best they could under the circumstances, worked long hours, with not many days off.”

Polling backs Dimondstein up. Americans hold the Postal Service in high regard — it’s our favorite federal agency, according to the Pew Research Center — and so we tend to be more forgiving and protective of it.

There are a pile of reasons why December mail piled up at the post office, the pandemic being the most obvious.

Early on in the crisis, when it was clear postal workers were at risk, the USPS adopted a more liberal leave policy, and yet some workers said they found it difficult to get time off. In a report in November, the agency’s inspector general found inconsistent compliance with the Postal Service’s face mask policies, and none of the daily temperature taking of employees recommended by the CDC.

By late summer, ProPublica reported, more than 50,000 workers had taken time off because they were sick, had to quarantine or had to care for a family member. The APWU says 160 postal workers have died from COVID-19, and that number might be higher by now.

Secondly, the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, instituted what he claimed were cost-cutting changes that caused delays in deliveries over the summer and raised grave concerns about the Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots for the November election. As a mega donor to former President Donald Trump, DeJoy appeared to be setting the USPS up for failure, in support of Trump’s claims that voting by mail would be a disaster. But the USPS came through in the fall, and we had record voter participation in the election.

Still, postal workers continued to be under a lot of stress. The election created a backlog of other mail going into the busiest month of the year, with coronavirus infections surging.

“And,” Dimondstein says, “when you add what became record package volume in the holidays, and a chronic staffing shortage that predated COVID, people were stressed, tired, looking for relief, but at the same time doing [their] best to serve the people of the country.”

The surge of parcels from online shopping, on the rise during the pandemic, inundated the country’s delivery system with millions of additional packages. Adding to the stress on the Postal Service were mid-December announcements by the major private carriers that they would no longer take shipments from certain retailers. “And all those [additional] goods got sent over to the Postal Service because the Postal Service does not say no,” says Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the APWU.

Postal employees worked 10- and 12-hour days to handle the surge, Horwitz said.

Still, it wasn’t enough to get Christmas cards delivered by Christmas.

While the pandemic created staffing problems, Dimondstein notes, the USPS had been paying overtime for years to make up for chronic shortages of employees. Understaffing worsened in 2020 because of the pandemic, causing some mail to be diverted to sorting centers that could handle it, contributing to delays.

Something is about to be done about that, however, though it has not been widely reported.

Just before Christmas, the Postal Service agreed to create more than 10,000 new positions through hiring and by converting part-timers to full-timers. That’s according to memorandums with the APWU and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union. The additional staffing will be in nearly 200 mail processing facilities across the country, and that’s an encouraging development, a positive note upon which this column ends.

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