WASHINGTON — Douglas Elbaum, a postal worker in Broward County, Fla., arrives at the Postal Service’s Sunrise branch at 4 a.m., when his only companions are his supervisor, the plant’s mice and palmetto bugs.
Mr. Elbaum, who is also a union representative, often lugs hefty packages, some weighing upward of 70 pounds, and sorts them for carrier routes by himself. One full-time co-worker is frequently on paid child care leave, and another has to handle the customer window as well as sort letters.
As a 59-year-old with high blood pressure, working in close quarters and sometimes brushing shoulders with colleagues, Mr. Elbaum views the coronavirus as a constant threat. At least 10,881 postal workers across the country have been infected by the virus, according to the agency. Louis DeJoy, who became postmaster general in June, said in an interview with the Economic Club of Washington D.C. late last month that 91 had died.
“Sorting parcels in a social-distanced manner, it’s just not possible,” Mr. Elbaum said, adding that he has to ask managers to remind employees to wear masks. “I worry about it all the time.”
These are especially challenging times for the Postal Service’s work force of more than 630,000 employees. Beyond chronic understaffing and the fear of operating during a pandemic, they are facing broad changes in the works by a new postmaster general who has promised to bring the system’s financial losses under control. They worry about a push from conservatives to fully privatize mail delivery.
And now, even as they are criticized for delivery delays in many parts of the country, they are under intense public pressure to ensure that mountains of mail-in ballots arrive on time and without further endangering the integrity of the already tumultuous 2020 election.
President Trump has only intensified the challenges for postal workers, and undercut their morale, by promoting baseless accusations about widespread fraud in mail voting. He has also continued his criticism of how the Postal Service has managed its relationship with Amazon, one of its largest customers.
Mr. Trump has long maintained, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the Postal Service undercharges Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.
Mr. Trump has also long derided the Postal Service as a “joke” and Amazon’s “delivery boy.”
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, said Mr. Trump’s attacks on the agency were “the ultimate insult to postal workers, especially in a time of pandemic.” His union, which has largely donated to Democratic campaigns, endorsed Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, in June.
Mr. Dimondstein urged Congress to provide more money to the Postal Service, a prospect held up by the partisan standoff over passing another round of economic stimulus. The service lost $69 billion between the 2007 and 2018 fiscal years, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency.
“This thing should not be allowed to become a political football,” Mr. Dimondstein said of funding for the Postal Service.
Postal workers are increasingly pushing back on criticisms of their performance and pledging in particular that they can handle the surge in mail ballots.
Joe Cogan, the president of the Portland, Ore. area local of the American Postal Workers Union, said he had personally fed ballot envelopes through the mail processing machines during his 36 years at the agency. As long as the Trump administration does not get in the way, he said, the Postal Service can handle the election.
“I have faith in the Postal Service. I don’t have faith in the federal government to not interfere,” he said. “But as it stands today, I have complete faith in us to get it in.”
Still, many postal workers and union leadership said they feared the current focus from Washington in addressing the Postal Service’s challenges could wane after the election, even as the agency’s underlying problems, including understaffing, the health risks of operating in a pandemic and the structural issues that have led to huge financial losses, remain.
“Do I think it’s going to fade away after the election?” said Jeff Riddell, the president of the Broward County area local of the American Postal Workers Union. “Unfortunately, I do.”
A law requiring the Postal Service to prefund health benefits for future retirees has burdened the agency and impeded necessary long-term investments. Decades-old delivery trucks, for example, leave letter carriers without air-conditioning in the blistering heat. The understaffing, exacerbated by the pandemic, has driven, in part, the summer’s mail delays, postal workers said.
“We need to get bodies in here,” said Ronnie W. Stutts, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association. “It’s causing our part-time people to be grossly overworked. They’re just beating them to death.”
The pandemic has worsened the day-to-day struggles that employees in understaffed facilities face. Thousands of employees have fallen ill, and more were forced to quarantine because of exposure to the virus.
At the beginning of the pandemic, when supplies of personal protective equipment were limited, postal workers said the agency failed to meet their urgent need for supplies like masks. Union leaders across the country fielded distressed calls from postal workers who were worried that they would catch the virus or expose a loved one.
Jonathan Smith, president of the New York metro area branch of the American Postal Workers Union, said in an interview that his members lacked the priority testing afforded to other essential workers.
The Postal Service has yet to establish temperature checks for its employees, despite union demands, Mr. Smith added.
In accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, employees who do not come in direct contact with customers are only required to wear a face covering when social distancing is infeasible, and updated cleaning measures have also been put in effect. But the agency has declined to issue a nationwide mask mandate.
In a statement, a Postal Service spokesman, David A. Partenheimer, said the agency was researching a pilot program for voluntary coronavirus or temperature testing at two locations.
He added that the safety of employees was the agency’s “highest priority,” though the Postal Service faced “some initial supply-chain issues” with securing the equipment necessary to protect employees against the virus. Those issues have since been resolved, he said.
But many postal workers remain afraid. James Epp, a maintenance employee and official at the American Postal Workers Union branch in Wausau, Wis., said his colleagues wore masks, but he still worried about spreading the virus to his children, five and two years old, both of whom have gone back to school.
Even where masks are obligatory, some employees have bent the rules. In the Portland area, Mr. Cogan, the local union president, recalled an employee who at one point declined to follow the local mask requirement and tested positive for the virus. He added that facilities in the region have experienced an uptick in cases over the last two months.
Postal workers have also been watching warily as Mr. DeJoy prepares to put in effect new policies to address the agency’s financial shortfalls. Those policies are likely to include cutting back on overtime. a step the agency took and then rolled back this summer after an outcry over service delays and concerns about the delivering of mail ballots. (Mr. DeJoy has said that reports that the cutbacks in overtime had been ordered by him are untrue.)
“Most people don’t want the overtime,” explained Chris Czubakowski, a clerk and union official in the Milwaukee area. But he acknowledged that overtime had become critical for the Postal Service to provide its services. “You already have understaffed operations for a decade, where they’ve been cutting jobs and not hiring,” he said.
Mr. DeJoy’s determination to press ahead with the removal of some mail sorting machines an initiative that began before he took office, was also condemned by employees and union officials. The Postal Service has maintained that it needs fewer machines because of the reduced volume of mail it is handling.
Among other concerns, Scott Hoffman, president of the American Postal Workers Union chapter in the Boston metro area, said the elimination of union jobs would be “inevitable,” after the agency destroyed some of the mail sorting machines it removed. He worried that the administration was planning to privatize the Postal Service, rendering it “at the mercy of the corporations.”
In August, Mr. DeJoy promised to delay several planned changes until after the election. For the time being, mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes would stay in place, and overtime would continue to be approved as needed. A pilot program that expedited the departure of carriers to their routes was eliminated.
But Mr. DeJoy has not specified what changes he plans to eventually carry out. Mr. Partenheimer, the spokesman, said details would be provided “at the appropriate time after the election.”
The on-again, off-again policy shifts have prompted confusion among some employees. Mr. Elbaum, the postal worker in Florida, described Mr. DeJoy’s agenda as “a lot of smoke and mirrors,” unlike anything he has seen during his 32 years at the agency. He questioned whether Mr. DeJoy’s new policies would ultimately come back to haunt the agency — and Mr. Trump.
“Politicizing the mail, delaying it for reasons — I can’t even — what is that going to prove?” he asked. “Who’s going to benefit from that? His friend Donald Trump? I don’t see how.”