After the Civil War, my great-grandfather Albert Cordner got a job delivering the mail by boat and train from Westerly to Newport, Rhode Island. As a veteran of the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, he was ready for the risks.
One cold January day in 1873, an accident on his mail boat “wafted Uncle Sam’s agent overboard,” the Newport Daily News reported. Until my ancestor was rescued, it was “a serious question of life and death.”
Mail delivery was so important, even my great-grandfather’s boots made headlines. “The new pair are of rubber, two-story and French roof pattern,” the Narragansett Weekly announced in January 1871. “And in them Cordner intends wading between South Kingston and Newport the remainder of the winter, as the ferry boats at this season run so irregular that he can scarcely fulfill his contract in transporting the mail.”
DeJoy abandons USPS work ethic
Countless Americans could share similar stories of postal workers upholding their unofficial motto to complete their rounds through snow, rain, heat and the gloom of night. But today, postal workers are being forced to abandon this long standing work ethic.
Why? The new postmaster general, Republican megadonor Louis DeJoy, foolishly argues that the way out of a pandemic-related financial crisis is to cut, cut, cut. After assuming leadership in June, DeJoy wasted no time in making changes for “efficiency” that have caused mail slowdowns across the country.
Until that point, postal workers had been performing extraordinarily well in handling a crisis-related spike in package demand. During the quarter ending June 30, package volume was up 50% over the previous year, as socially distancing Americans ordered home deliveries of food, medicine and other essentials.
Postal workers pulled off this feat despite COVID-19 drastically thinning their ranks. The American Postal Workers Union, which represents post office employees, reports that as many as 3,000 of their members have had the virus, and at least 25,000 have had to quarantine due to exposure. Illness and family care demands have depleted the rural letter carrier workforce by as much as 20% at certain points.
DeJoy, a former logistics corporation CEO, has treated pandemic-related increases in labor and transportation costs as fat in need of cutting. Instead of rewarding his employees for working extended hours in our time of great need, he told them to leave mail and packages behind rather than claim one nickel in overtime pay.
Congressional offices were soon flooded with complaints of delays in receiving benefits checks, medications and other essentials — as well as concerns about how the slowdown will affect mail-in voting. DeJoy fanned the flames last Friday by announcing a hiring freeze and purging several longtime senior postal officials.
Democratic leaders are demanding a repeal of the service cuts and significant crisis relief aid so the Postal Service can continue providing effective service in these uncertain times. So far, Republican leaders have balked at these demands.
Let postal workers do their jobs
In August 1871, my great-grandfather narrowly escaped yet another mail route disaster. According to the Narragansett Weekly, lightning struck a stone on the side of the road just ahead of his train, “seriously affecting one of the passengers, and placing one of his locomotives hors de combat” — a French term referring to military personnel who are incapable of performing their duties during war.
The postmaster general is trying to place the postal workforce hors de combat in our war against the pandemic. Let’s hope the damage will be short lived, as it was for my great-grandfather’s mail train and passengers.
“Both subsequently ‘revived’ ” from the lightning strike, the newspaper reported, “and the procession moved on.” If we’re going to do the same during this pandemic, we need to let our postal workers do their jobs.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump hobbles the USPS in a pandemic election when we need it most