Increasing numbers of US Postal Service employees have been testing positive for COVID-19.
As of Wednesday morning, 427 out of approximately 630,000 postal workers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Steve Doherty, a spokesman for the postal service in Boston.
USPS officials have not disclosed the number of postal workers in Massachusetts who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but Doherty did confirm that three employees at the USPS facility in Westfield tested positive, as did one USPS truck driver in Boston, one letter carrier in Braintree, and one clerk in Sherborn.
Mike Rakes, the USPS district manager for Greater Boston, said in a letter to the editor of the Globe on Wednesday that postal workers are dedicated to delivering the letters, packages, and especially paychecks and medications that are crucial during the pandemic — but they need the public to help with social distancing.
“We are asking people to not approach our carriers to accept delivery,” Rakes wrote in his letter. “Let the carrier leave the mailbox before collecting the mail. With schools not in session, children should also be encouraged to not approach a postal vehicle or carrier.”
For deliveries requiring a signature, Rakes said, mail carriers will knock rather than touch doorbells, and they’ll ask the resident to confirm their name rather than having them sign anything. Then they will leave the package in a spot where the resident can easily retrieve it.
USPS officials are providing employees with the most up-to-date information on how to stay safe during the pandemic, and “we’re updating our cleaning policies to ensure that all cleaning occurs in a manner consistent with CDC guidance,” according to Doherty.
“We have implemented measures at retail facilities and mail processing facilities to ensure appropriate social distancing, including through signage, floor tape, and ‘cough/sneeze’ barriers,” Doherty said in an e-mail. “We have changed delivery procedures to eliminate the requirement that customers sign our Mobile Delivery Devices for delivery. For increased safety, employees will politely ask the customer 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.”
USPS officials are also updating their leave policies to “give our employees the ability to stay home whenever they feel sick, must provide dependent care, or wish to abide by state or local shelter-in-place requirements,” Doherty wrote. “We have entered into agreements with our unions and management associations to provide 80 hours of paid leave to non-career employees for issues related to COVID-19, and have expanded the definition of sick leave for dependent care for covered employees to deal with the closures of primary and secondary schools across the country.”
Doherty also noted that there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail.
Due to staffing shortages Doherty said some post offices have reduced their hours “out of necessity” but those moves were temporary. There is no plan to permanently cut back hours, he said.
There are concerns, however, about the ability of USPS to survive the loss of revenue that has occurred as a result of the pandemic.
“As the Postal Service continues to spend resources in response to this crisis, the national decline in economic activity has led to a rapid drop in mail volumes and a significant loss in needed revenues, which puts our ongoing ability to provide our vital federal service at risk,” Doherty said in a an e-mail. “We will continue to work with policymakers in the months ahead to ensure that Americans have access to the mail during this critical time in our nation’s history.”
The seriousness of the situation was highlighted in a statement released by US Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and US Representative Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, on March 23.
“The Postal Service is in need of urgent help as a direct result of the coronavirus crisis," they said in the joint statement. "Based on a number of briefings and warnings this week about a critical fall-off in mail across the country, it has become clear that the Postal Service will not survive the summer without immediate help from Congress and the White House. Every community in America relies on the Postal Service to deliver vital goods and services, including life-saving medications. The Postal Service needs America’s help, and we must answer this call.”
Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said the stimulus legislation that provided $10 billion in new borrowing authority was “woefully inadequate." In a statement posted on the union’s website, he said the postal service has “already been weakened for more than a decade by an unfair statutory mandate to prefund future retiree health benefits” and is now facing the reality that mail volume and revenues may drop by more than 50 percent of more this year.
“To both protect the public health and to stabilize our economy, the Postal Service must be strengthened in the next round of legislation to battle the deep economic recession that is now beginning,” he said in the statement.
Rolando said the USPS needs Congress to provide at least $25 billion in direct financial assistance to the postal service and forgive its outstanding debt. “Although the Postal Service has not received taxpayer appropriations (other than for military voting and free mail for the blind) since the early 1980s, the present crisis warrants such appropriations now,” he said.
Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.