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Lost in the Mail in the Coronavirus Era

The pandemic threatens letter carriers, their customers, the US Postal Service itself – and even the November election.

A "mystery" note from the Vice President of the United States to the author. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael Winship)

A "mystery" note from the Vice President of the United States to the author. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael Winship)

We finally got the mail on Thursday. None had arrived for a week, except for some packages. Our main local post office downtown, at the southern end of Manhattan’s West Village, has been hit hard by COVID-19.

Earlier in the week, I had run into a postal carrier on my street and asked what was happening. Keeping our social distance, he told me he had been transferred to our neighborhood from a less busy location and that out of some thirty letter carriers at our main PO, twenty were out sick. The New York Post cited a nearby resident who said she was told that only nine of our 61 local postal employees were working “because of illness or they have to take care of family members.”

Our congressman, Rep. Jerry Nadler, emailed constituents to let us know that the USPS expected to “clear the backlog” over the next couple of days and so it was on Thursday that mail appeared, although there has been little further since.

It was a ragtag mix, the way it usually is these days, with so few sending personal correspondence via letter mail anymore. There were flyers from Wayfair, Morgan Stanley and Holland America, that benighted, virus-ridden cruise line; a couple of bills and wait – something marked “Confidential” from Vice President Mike Pence!

How I got on the radar of Pence and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) – for this “confidential” letter is a fundraising appeal, of course – is a mystery. It begins “Dear Patriotic American” – so far, so good, I’m patriotic and American – but quickly segues: “Despite vicious, nonstop opposition from the Democrats and their media cheerleaders, we’ve got a roaring economy, our military is stronger, our communities are safer, and we’ve put more than 190 pro-Constitution conservative judges on our Federal courts.”

Have the folks at the NRCC not looked out the window or watched TV to see what’s happening to their “roaring economy” and safer communities? Mike Pence, you’re head of the coronavirus task force – don’t the priorities of this letter seem a little skewed or just plain obtuse? When was this letter drafted and who let it escape?

It goes on: “All that progress is threatened by the extreme, full-blown socialists who have taken control of the Democratic Party. Under Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats are using all their power to harass President Trump and impose socialism on the American people… as I write you today House Democrats are plotting new abusive investigations and phony ‘scandals’ that their media friends will obsess over 24/7…

“You know as well as I do that there is an angry, nationwide base of left-wing activists who are motivated by hatred of our good President. These people have been pouring money into Democrat campaigns month after month, and along with liberal fat-cat donors in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Manhattan and beyond, they are donating HUGE funds to protect Speaker Pelosi’s hard-left majority.”

Golly. In the six short pages of this missive, there are a dozen references to socialists or socialism and six mentions of Nancy Pelosi. Only three mentions of the awful media—I’m a little hurt.

"Right now, nationwide, as with my own local post office, the US Postal Service is trying to deal with the overwhelming magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Whoever wrote this under Pence’s name claims Democrats “see the Constitution as something to circumvent, not something to uphold.”

There goes the GOP, projecting again, led by a foolish reckless president who views the Constitution as a bug not a feature of American government.  And there’s a mention of “New Democrats” like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilham Omar who “want to use their government power to impose harsh changes on America.” Again with the projection—have Republicans not seen what they’ve done to democracy, the harsh changes their policies have created and the suffering they’ve caused? Don’t bother—I know it’s a rhetorical question.

As we grapple with our current tragic crisis, much of which was repeatedly forewarned and could have been far more effectively contained if not for needless delay, ignorance and abandon—many more lives could have been saved—we see the myriad ways in which the Trump White House has changed the way our country is managed. And the besieged post office is just one good example.

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Right now, nationwide, as with my own local post office, the US Postal Service is trying to deal with the overwhelming magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers are performing heroically but are desperately shorthanded and succumbing to sickness. And while in many areas of the country postal management is trying to serve customers and protect both them and employees, the quality of care greatly varies.

An article last month from investigative journalists at Pro Publica reported postal carriers saying they were “being pressed into service against medical advice and with insufficient protection against the novel coronavirus… postal workers said the USPS has long pushed employees to avoid taking sick days and managers are still sticking to that.” And Jake Bittle at The Nation wrote, “Many post offices have long been understaffed, and the coronavirus is poised to push an already overworked labor force to a breaking point. Without drastic action, the virus could soon threaten the Postal Service just when it’s needed most.”

As a letter carrier told Bittle, “We’re a service that stitches the community together. If people see us out delivering the mail like normal, it calms them down.” But even before the coronavirus outbreak, you probably knew the postal service was in bad budget trouble. The USPS ran $9 billion in the red during fiscal 2019. “The service, on one side, is a federal agency required to serve residents no matter how remote the locale,” Jason Del Rey reports at Vox. “At the same time, it’s competing with private shipping carriers like FedEx, UPS, and its frenemy Amazon, which relies on the USPS for Sunday delivery while at the same time aggressively ramping up its own Amazon delivery network… modest package delivery volume increases could not make up for decreasing volume in first-class mail.”

Further, the postal service is saddled with a unique financial burden: The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), passed by a Republican Congress in 2006, requires USPS to sustain a $72 billion fund to cover the costs of post-retirement health care for its employees 75 years out. As per a report from the Institute for Policy Studies, “This extraordinary mandate, which applies to no other federal agency or private corporation, created a financial ‘crisis’ that has been used to justify harmful service cuts and even calls for postal privatization. These reforms would be devastating for millions of postal workers and customers, particularly in heavily Republican rural areas.”

In February, the House passed a bill to repeal the usurious health fund and a similar bill awaits passage in the Senate—but given the logjam of legislation that existed even before coronavirus and the current national crisis, it’s feared that the postal service could run out of money by June. The House version of the recent $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package included $25 billion in emergency funding to make up for revenues lost in the pandemic. It also canceled USPS debt and offered the post office loans of up to $15 billion, but those loans are all that survived what finally was passed into law. The situation remains critical. The next round of relief legislation must address this.

The USPS’ dire financial straits couldn’t continue at a worse time, when COVID-19 has devastated the post office with sickness and letters could be contaminated with virus, while people forced to stay at home are in urgent need of the US Mail for deliveries of medical supplies and prescriptions, welfare and Social Security payments and those promised $1200 checks from the government -- allegedly to tide us over until businesses are reopened and jobs restored.

And don’t forget election ballots – in these difficult times of contagion, vote-by-mail and absentee ballots become all the more important as voters fear exposure if they go to the polls. (Look at what’s happened in Wisconsin, where the Republican state legislature and the US Supreme Court forbid moving the date of a primary and refused to extend the time limit for absentee ballots, leaving more than 12,000 of those ballots still in the mail and forcing would-be voters to risk their health with a trip to the now-limited number of polling stations.)

The just passed stimulus legislation includes $400 million to help states prepare for coming elections but it’s not nearly enough and there are no guidelines—all of it could be spent on vote-by-mail or none of it.

We know Donald Trump doesn’t want vote-by-mail, even though he used it to vote in New York City in 2018 and in last month’s Florida presidential primary. “I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting,” he declared last Friday. “I think people should vote [in person] with voter ID.”

Trump and his GOP collaborators, who just as soon would see voting in any form eliminated, know what the mail is really good for—sending out “confidential” fundraisers from Vice President Pence and other accomplices screaming falsehoods to the gullible about socialism, Nancy Pelosi and the media—all in the midst of a real-life, existential global crisis.

By the way, those letters demanding cash donations are mailed bulk rate—non-profit US postage paid.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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