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Mail carriers deliver medicine and mail till dark, thanks to COVID-19

Delivering needed goods is an essential service during the pandemic. But that means long, hard hours for carriers whose numbers are being sapped by the coronavirus.

ST. PETERSBURG — It was the third Wednesday of July as mail carrier Jose Estevez walked his route through the St. Pete Heights neighborhood. It was 5 p.m. and still 95 degrees out in the unrelenting sun.

Before the pandemic, it would have been quitting time. But not anymore. The masked carrier was starting the ninth hour of his 10-hour work day.

The 38-year-old Estevez has spent 13 years working for the U.S. Postal Service but this has been his most challenging summer.

His fellow carriers have had to miss work because of COVID-19. Some have even died. The rest have to step up to connect quarantining families to goods they don’t have to risk leaving the home to get.

That means working longer, harder days. They must also make an endless series of decisions about how to safely deliver packages, touch mailboxes and deal with unexpected encounters along their routes as they try to shield themselves from the virus.

Estevez said his shifts have gone from 8 hours a day to 10. In the first two weeks of July, he said he clocked 64 hours and 55 hours.

“The coronavirus has really affected mail delivery,” he said. “We have been working a lot more because (carriers) are out sick.”

Jose Estevez, 38, left, speaks with Jonathan Simmons, 32, who lives in the neighborhood Estevez delivers mail to on July 15 in St. Petersburg. “He knows everybody in the neighborhood,” Simmons said. “We really appreciate all the work he does for us.”
Jose Estevez, 38, left, speaks with Jonathan Simmons, 32, who lives in the neighborhood Estevez delivers mail to on July 15 in St. Petersburg. “He knows everybody in the neighborhood,” Simmons said. “We really appreciate all the work he does for us.” [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

Letter volume has decreased during the pandemic, the Postal Service says, but the volume of parcels that need to be delivered have increased — significantly. Postal Service spokesperson David Walton said the current volume of mail rivals that of Christmastime.

And carriers keep falling ill with the virus.

“Almost everybody is working overtime because of a large number of people out due to being sick or in quarantine,” said Albert Friedman, state president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

• • •

In one local postal union, almost 17 percent of mail carriers and 28 percent of employees that process packages are missing work because of the pandemic.

That’s according to Joe Henshen, president of National Association of Letter Carriers’ West Coast Florida Letter Carriers Branch 1477, which represents 1,568 carriers in Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties.

His members are working 10- to 12-hour shifts, he told the Tampa Bay Times, doing their best despite the pandemic.

The Postal Service employs about 600,000 nationwide. Roughly 40,000 employees have been under quarantine since the pandemic started. There have also been 2,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 60 deaths as of June, according to the latest data available. Those are the figures the agency shared with its unions, according to the American Postal Workers Union.

The agency implemented a range of measures to reduce health risks to employees and customers, Walton said, such as offering free masks and sanitation products to postal workers and requiring them to quarantine for at least 14 days at the onset of symptoms or testing positive.

After negotiations with the union, the Postal Service has also extended its leave policies to encourage employees to stay home for a range of coronavirus-related reasons, including taking care of sick family members and children who are home due to school closures.

Vote-by-mail ballots are shown in a U.S. Postal Service sorting trays on Aug. 5 at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle.
Vote-by-mail ballots are shown in a U.S. Postal Service sorting trays on Aug. 5 at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle. [ TED S. WARREN | AP ]

The pandemic is just one of many issues affecting the Postal Service. The federal agency runs on its own revenues, but the pandemic and recession have led to a sharp decline in first-class and marketing mail — the service’s most profitable products — leaving it in dire financial straits.

Politics isn’t helping. The House passed a $25 billion relief package for the Postal Service in July, but the Senate has not acted. President Trump has repeatedly attacked the agency and emergency funding has been held up. Last month Postmaster General Louis DeJoy proposed banning overtime and eliminating extra trips to save money, according to the Washington Post.

Critics say delaying service could cost the Postal Service corporate clients and hurt those who get their medications and other vital goods via mail. There are also fears that delaying mail delivery undermines vote-by-mail, which will be heavily relied upon in the November election because of the pandemic.

• • •

Michael Williams, 47, has been delivering mail to businesses and residences to the area of N MacDill Avenue and W Columbus Drive, south of Raymond James Stadium, since 2016. Both Williams and Estevez served in the military before joining the Postal Service.

The coronavirus adds extra steps to his daily shifts, he said, such as wearing a mask and gloves and starting each shift by spraying the inside of his mail truck with disinfectant.

Williams has also been making an additional stop since the start of the pandemic: the pharmacy.

To mitigate the risks of COVID-19, families have been opting to have their medications delivered instead of risking a trip to the pharmacy.

Williams said that he picks up medication for 30 to 40 households almost six days a week, at the CVS pharmacy at 2775 N MacDill Avenue.

The pandemic has underscored how essential his job is, Williams said.

“Without us, there’s no mail,” he said. “In March, Tampa became a ghost town, but we’re still working.”

• • •

The extra hours are even harder for the carriers who are on foot or bike, Estevez said. It’s a physical and mental strain.

He delivers using “park and loop” routes, in which he parks the mail truck in a corner of a neighborhood and walks to each house along the streets around him.

“People don’t realize how much work you got to go through,” he said, beads of sweat collecting under his wide-brimmed hat. “We make it look easy.”

Jose Estevez, 38, delivers mail in the St. Pete Heights neighborhood on July 15 in St. Petersburg.
Jose Estevez, 38, delivers mail in the St. Pete Heights neighborhood on July 15 in St. Petersburg. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

Estevez walks towards the last house on the block as a man next door steps onto his porch to grab the mail that Estevez has just placed in his mailbox. They practice social distancing and shouting at each other.

“Hey Keith!,” Estevez turned around and yelled.

“How are you doing Jose?” the man shouted back.

St. Pete Heights has been Estevez’s territory for eight years.

“Everyone here is friendly,” he said. “Except for the dogs.”

That’s how he broke his wrist in December. A dog ran out from an open side door of a house and jumped on him during his route. Estevez said it caused him to fall on his back and twist his wrist. He returned to work in March, when the pandemic started

Ryan Stiphany, 34, said he can see from his home in Historic Kenwood how much the pandemic weighs on the Postal Service. He used to get his mail by 5 p.m. Now, he says he gets it between 7 and 9 p.m. His grandfather was a mail carrier in Michigan.

“My heart goes out to them,” he said. “They are already underpaid and overworked. To essentially work 10 to 12 hours in the heat is terrible.”

Jose Estevez, 38, poses with his delivery truck on July 15 in St. Petersburg.
Jose Estevez, 38, poses with his delivery truck on July 15 in St. Petersburg. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

• • •

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