As the COVID-19 crisis continues and millions of Americans must stay at home, the essential work of the United States Postal Service (USPS) carries on. Post offices remain open, and postal workers continue to deliver to every address in the country six days a week as required by law. These government workers risk their own health and their family’s by venturing into the world and touching surfaces others have touched, all to ensure that Americans have access to the letters and parcels that will allow us to avoid doing the same. As these postal employees work to help keep us safe, it’s the job of USPS leadership and its local managers to make sure these frontline workers have personal protective equipment (PPE) and follow practices to stay safe and healthy.

All of this will come at a cost, and sourcing PPE to protect tens or hundreds of thousands of postal employees on short notice will be a massive effort for USPS back-office staff. But the agency isn’t without help from Congress. As part of the legislature’s crisis relief package, the USPS was allowed to borrow a further $10 billion from the Treasury to cover operational costs associated with maintaining its work. In the bill, Congress justifies this new borrowing authority with the fact that the agency serves as a vital shipper of medical supplies.

Importantly, this money is limited to operational, not capital costs. The USPS won’t be using COVID-19 crisis funding to renovate post offices, improve automation at sorting centers or buy its much-needed fleet of new postal vehicles. What the $10 billion in intragovernmental debt will buy is PPE, extra staff time for cleaning, more staff sick leave—including for employees who don’t normally have the benefit—and overtime for those left covering sick peoples’ shifts. In total, the sum is enough to cover an increase in annual operating expenses of about 12 percent.

It’s important to note that this is intragovernmental debt, not a grant or debt forgiveness as earlier proposals had considered. The new credit line does nothing to change the USPS’s medium-term financial outlook, and the bill makes no non-crisis changes to postal law. Policymakers should be praised for this decision. By not using this crisis as an opportunity to bail out the postal service, it’s allowed the agency to maintain its long-standing status as a self-funding agency for the time being. This has long been a priority of Congressional postal oversight committees, under the belief that maintaining the postal service should not require funds that could be spent on policy priorities elsewhere in government, including on response in times of national crisis.

Pursuant to the goal of keeping its employees safe, postal management has issued a memorandum stating that employees will be issued surgical masks upon request. It has worked with postal unions to amend sick leave policies and ensure postal staff will not be punished for staying home when they or one of their loved ones is sick. The new borrowing authority will certainly help get more PPE for postal workers, and extra sick leave is important to maintain staffing, especially for rural letter carriers. Some post offices are getting new plexiglass barriers, although the agency has not made clear how many buildings will see changes. Expanding on this, Congress’s bill also explicitly authorizes the agency to set up alternative temporary mail delivery locations in order to protect postal workers and customers. By including this provision, Congress gives the USPS some regulatory breathing room to temporarily change mail delivery patterns without hitting barriers like rules against mail route mode-of-delivery conversion. Together, these changes are important, but incomplete steps.

The USPS has been slow to get PPE in the hands of its workers—inaction that will cost some employees their lives. As of this writing, dozens of postal employees are already ill, and many more will join them in the coming weeks. One option that could slow the spread among USPS staff would be for the agency to relax its dress code, suspending rules related to face masks and gloves for all frontline “Type 1a” employees. It should also work with its unions to allow existing clothing allowances to be used on employee-purchased PPE, which would become especially important should management fail to secure necessary masks and sanitation supplies in the immediate future. Any associated increase in employee clothing allowance costs is certainly a crisis-related operating expense that could be dually paid with the USPS’s new borrowing authority.

The postal service has made clear it intends to continue operations through the ongoing crisis, a choice that other world post offices have decided against. In doing so, it has decided to put tens of thousands of Americans in a bit of extra danger, all to ensure mail is delivered to every address six days per week. This demands a commitment to keep postal employees safe. Congress gave the agency a $10 billion credit line to do so. Now it’s the agency’s job to make sure the money does what is intended.

Image credit:  Sundry Photography

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