Burnout, staff shortages: Utah postal employees are at their ‘breaking point,’ union president says

The U.S. Postal Service disciplined four Salt Lake City employees for missing work due to COVID-19, documents show.

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Local letter carriers with the U.S. Postal Service are at their “breaking point” as they continue to work through rampant burnout, high staff turnover and a pandemic that keeps punching holes in their ranks, a union president in Utah told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Post offices in Salt Lake City, Provo and St. George are all dealing with significant staffing issues, leaving healthy workers sometimes working 12-hour shifts with only one day off per week as they fill in for colleagues sick with COVID-19, said Phillip Rodriquez, who works at a postal station in Salt Lake City and serves as the Utah president for the National Association of Letter Carriers.

In an emailed statement, the Postal Service said the agency “continues to closely monitor the COVID-19 situation, including reviewing and following practicable guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” such as requiring workers to wear masks.

The Postal Service also stated that it requires employees who have been infected or exposed to COVID-19 to stay home. But the agency has disciplined Utah postal employees who said they either missed work because they had tested positive, or because they had COVID-19 symptoms but did not provide adequate documentation of a positive test, documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show.

Scott Canfield, postmaster for Salt Lake City, didn’t respond to several requests for comment.

Rodriquez said that in Utah, and nationwide, Postal Service management won’t count at-home COVID-19 test results as valid unless a doctor verifies and vouches for them.

Even when letter carriers are in isolation after testing positive, some managers have expected that they should still show up for their shift, Rodriquez said.

Russ Franklin, president of the American Postal Workers Union Salt Lake City Local 6 chapter, said some COVID-19 “long-haulers” are facing that pressure as well, as they deal with symptoms months after being diagnosed.

“The post office just expects you to come to work,” he said. “And so they take action to remove those employees or fire them.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A post office and sorting facility in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

A long day in the life

Salt Lake City letter carriers usually start their workday with a lot of driving, long before they sling a bag stuffed with mail across their shoulders and go trekking from yard to yard.

First, a carrier whose route is near the University of Utah, for example, must report to the post office at 1760 W. 2100 South and pick up all the mail to be delivered that day. Then the carrier heads out around 7 a.m. In heavy traffic, the drive from the post office to the U. is about a half-hour.

Carriers are then on their feet all day as they deliver the mail, a task that involves heavy lifting, bending and twisting, Rodriquez said, as well as being exposed to the elements.

Sometimes, the letter carrier’s day involves driving back to the post office on Redwood Road to refill the truck with whatever parcels that didn’t fit into the first load, a detour that adds about another hour of driving.

And if a co-worker has called out sick, the carrier may also have to deliver mail on that person’s route, Rodriquez said.

During the winter, when the sun sets around 5 p.m., it’s common for carriers to wear headlamps as they continue delivering mail long after dark, Rodriquez said, often working until after 8 p.m., and sometimes until even 10 p.m.

“We have a legal responsibility to make sure that all our product, all the mail, is delivered every day, and a lot of times, we don’t have an option but to finish what we started,” he said.

During the holiday season, Rodriquez said a letter carrier came to him for help, sharing that he had worked 98 hours in one week. The man was so exhausted that he fell asleep between deliveries and was on the verge of quitting.

Since then, that carrier has been working 60-hour weeks instead, Rodriquez said.

He knows of another carrier who clocked in at 6 a.m. during the holidays, then didn’t clock out until 12:02 a.m. — technically the next day.

That’s one reason why the pandemic has been “catastrophic” to letter carriers’ physical and mental health, Rodriquez said.

“Our workforce cannot maintain these hours and these rigorous conditions,” he said.

Bringing work home

According to the Postal Service’s Employee and Labor Relations Manual, postal employees can’t be required to work more than 12 hours in a day except during emergencies. And they aren’t supposed to work more than 60 hours in a week, Rodriquez said.

But he said it’s common for workers to be pushed past those limits.

Since about 2018, postal employees nationwide frequently can’t limit their workweeks to 40 hours unless they have a documented medical condition, he said.

During fiscal year 2018, career employees (who are considered permanent workers and are eligible for benefits) earned $29.76 per hour on average, and non-career employees (usually hired on a temporary basis) earned $18.55 per hour on average, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Any work performed beyond an initial eight hours in a shift is paid as overtime, Rodriquez said, and employees can also receive additional pay if they work after dark.

Employees who perform physically and mentally challenging tasks for extended periods of time are at risk for fatigue, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Far from just making employees feel sleepy, fatigue can slow reaction times, reduce focus, impair judgment and limit short-term memory.

“It’s very concerning because their senses dwindle, and you’re in the dark, and you’re walking down the streets, and you have to really pay particular attention to your surroundings,” Rodriquez said. “The mental focus on that is extremely difficult.”

At the end of the night, after hours of focusing on their own safety, it can be difficult for carriers to fall asleep, he said, adding, “and then you get up and do it again.”

Postal employees have cited extended hours, fear of bringing home the disease, and interacting with unhappy customers as sources of anxiety and stress. An article that appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine listed ways that workers can learn to cope with the stress of COVID-19.

Among suggestions, including taking time to relax and seeking regular medical care, the list said: “Value yourself — You are somebody.”

COVID-19 cases, and discipline

Nationally, 19,742 postal workers were in quarantine or isolation in January after testing positive for COVID-19 or being exposed to it, the Washington Post reported.

However, COVID-19 case counts among postal employees in the Utah-Nevada district have been “dropping steadily” since the beginning of February, Franklin said.

In Utah, active cases of COVID-19 among Postal Service employees went down from 30 on Jan. 19 to nine on Feb. 2, according to emails that Franklin provided to the Tribune.

COVID-19 was a contributing factor in the deaths of two members of Salt Lake City Local 6. “It’s been traumatic,” Franklin said.

In its emailed statement to The Tribune, the Postal Service said, “The safety of our hardworking employees who have continued to serve the American people throughout the pandemic is our number one priority.”

But Rodriquez said that union stewards are having to fight with the Postal Service because the agency is disciplining some workers who stay home because they have tested positive for COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms.

Sick employees often find themselves in a “no-win situation,” he said, with some feeling like they should return to work while they’re still infectious.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Russ Franklin, the local president of the American Postal Workers Union poses for a photograph at the union hall in West Vally City, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

In order to avoid discipline for an illness-related absence, the Postal Service requires employees to request sick leave by filling out a form and having it approved by their supervisor, according to an employee manual. In the case of unexpected illness or injury, workers have to let management know that they can’t work and how long they’ll be out.

But the process for requesting leave due to COVID-19 can be “really arbitrary” and vary from manager to manager, Franklin said.

The Postal Service was tasked with delivering millions of at-home rapid COVID-19 tests throughout the country in January. But postal employees can’t use those home tests as “proof” that they are infected and need to quarantine, Franklin said. Instead, they are required to take those results to a doctor and have them verified.

Information for American Postal Worker Union members on the organization’s website recommends that employees get a laboratory PCR test. But a positive antibody or antigen COVID-19 test result, combined with “medical evidence” and documentation from a physician may also be accepted, it says. In bold letters, the website states, “At-home and rapid tests alone are not sufficient to serve as proof of illness.”

Rodriquez said letter carriers in Utah and nationwide have been experiencing this roadblock, with the Postal Service not recognizing a home test as a “certified lab test.”

Once employees submit the proper documentation, their jobs are usually safe if they have to take leave because of COVID-19, Franklin said. However, if employees tell a manager that they need to quarantine based on a home test — and they already have missed a lot of work — then the employees could be subject to discipline, he added.

Beginning in March 2021 and continuing through Sept. 30, the American Rescue Plan Act provided postal employees with up to 600 hours of paid emergency federal employee leave for qualifying reasons related to COVID-19, including experiencing symptoms and having to isolate.

Employees were paid for that leave at the same rate as their normal pay, up to a maximum of $2,800 per pay period.

That COVID-19 leave ended Sept. 30, but postal employees could still use sick leave, annual leave, or leave without pay to cover themselves if they got sick, according to a memorandum of understanding between the Postal Service and unions that was established in March 2020 and extended through April 8, 2022.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A post office and sorting facility in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

The memorandum states that leave taken for COVID-19-related reasons through April 8 “may not be cited in discipline for failing to maintain an assigned schedule.”

But disciplinary documents obtained by the Tribune show that the Postal Service took action against four postal employees in Salt Lake City this fall and winter.

The first person received a warning letter for taking unscheduled sick leave and unscheduled leave without pay. The letter stated: “During a management investigation you acknowledged your unscheduled absences but did not provided [sic] an acceptable reason.”

The employee had cited COVID-19 symptoms as the reason for being absent.

The second and third employees were both issued disciplinary letters for taking unscheduled sick leave and unscheduled leave without pay. Both reported that they had missed work because of COVID-19 symptoms.

All three letters included the following sentences: “Failure to maintain your assigned schedule is a very serious matter. The Postal Service must have available employees who report for duty as scheduled in order to maintain the efficiency of operation entrusted to it.”

After testing positive for COVID-19 and taking several days of unscheduled leave without pay, the fourth employee was suspended for seven days, documents show. The worker appears to have submitted a note from a physician confirming they had COVID-19 and needed to isolate, according to the disciplinary documents.

A union steward whom the Tribune agreed not to identify said that two of the four cases had been dropped. The other two, including the case where the person was suspended, were still awaiting a decision as of Feb. 15.

Franklin said he knew of two COVID-19 “long-haulers” who were disciplined by USPS for missing work. One resigned; the other case is still pending, he said.

Finding a ‘family’

At the beginning of February, the Postal Service held a Salt Lake City job fair to fill “immediate” openings for city carrier assistants, rural carrier associates and mail processing clerks, with pay starting at $18 an hour.

But Rodriquez said he wants the Postal Service to make a better effort to retain the employees the agency already has.

Between the fiscal years 2016 and 2020, 6% to 8% of career postal employees left each year, and about two-thirds of those departures were due to retirement, according to a 2021 report from the Office of Inspector General about how Postal Service workers view their employer.

The report also showed that non-career employees left in much higher numbers each year — between 36% and 43% — during the same time period.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mail trucks are parked for the night at the temporary postal annex in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.

The union steward who spoke with the Tribune said working as a letter carrier connects you with the community in a unique way. Mail carriers will put a loose dog back in a resident’s yard, or notice when mail is piling up on a person’s porch, she said. Sometimes, they even act as first responders.

But there’s also pressure on employees to perform, she said, and workers often feel like their boss is “never happy.”

Rodriquez said that despite the hardship of the past few years, he still thinks working for the Postal Service is a “great job.” He came into the agency straight from the military, he said, and he described his co-workers as “family.”

But he added that the Postal Service should better recognize its workforce and what it goes through, as well as the “harm” he feels that management can create.