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Pandemic increases workload, health risks for postal and delivery employees

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are relying on mail carriers and delivery workers for essential supplies. The workload for many of these employees has increased significantly with so many consumers ordering from home. Stress and fatigue are at high levels, as workers worry about virus exposure -- and take extra precautions not to bring it home. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the midst of this pandemic, millions of people are relying on mail carriers and delivery workers for essential supplies.

    The Postal Service, meanwhile, is struggling financially, seeking help from Congress, and under fire from the president, who says he won't back financial relief unless the Postal Service raises rates.

    Amna is back with a report based on talks with postal and delivery workers on the front lines every day about the risks they face and the challenge of staying safe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Every morning in Louisville, Mississippi, Latonya Outlaw and the mail clerks she supervises at this post office gather in a circle outside and six feet apart.

    It's their daily safety protocol meeting, standard during the pandemic.

  • Latonya Outlaw:

    Avoid ringing the doorbell, if possible.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Latonya has added another team ritual.

  • Latonya Outlaw:

    We pray that we're covered through the day and that we can be at work and work safely and return home to our family safely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Latonya and her team are some of the 630,000 U.S. Postal Service workers sorting and delivering mail to millions of Americans every day. But that is not without risk.

    More than 2,500 Postal Service employees have tested positive for the virus. And, according to the American Postal Workers Union, more than 60 have died. They aren't the only ones on the front lines. They join workers from companies like FedEx and UPS, who are among the essential workers keeping people connected, delivering packages from shuttered businesses, groceries to families sheltering in place, and prescriptions straight to patients' doorsteps.

  • Steve O’Connell:

    UPS calls me a service provider, but I'm a truck driver. I deliver packages for a living.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steve O'Connell has been with UPS 15 years, and says he's never been busier.

  • Steve O’Connell:

    I got to go to work.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ten-to-12-hour days are his new normal.

  • Steve O’Connell:

    I'll have nightmares of the amount of packages that are in the truck on a daily basis, that you really have to stop and take a deep breath when you see it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And he knows the risk he faces each shift. He's seen it up close, at the Boston UPS facility where he works.

  • Steve O’Connell:

    It was just weekly one to two to three guys would go out, and one would come back. Another one would go out. You would ask, where is this guy? Oh, he's out on COVID.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    According to O'Connell's union, Teamsters Local 25, five employees at that UPS facility tested positive for COVID-19 and another five were presumptive positives.

    UPS told the "NewsHour" that they do not disclose positive cases to the media and said in a statement that they are "vigilantly taking steps to protect the health and welfare of employees, customers and the general public."

    But back in March, O'Connell worries he carried the virus home from work. His wife Hanna (ph) was diagnosed by her doctor with COVID-19, despite testing negative. Just 33 years old, she was hit hard.

  • Steve O’Connell:

    Watching her and trying to walk from the couch to the bathroom, and then come back in tears because she can't breathe. And with the 2-year-old running around, and he doesn't understand what's wrong with his mom, and it was difficult.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Today Hanna is slowly recovering. And after two weeks of self-quarantining, O'Connell is now back at work, wearing this Boston Strong mask for protection in a place he says social distancing is near impossible.

  • Steve O’Connell:

    Every truck is right next to each other. Everyone's crammed in a hallway together trying to get the board in the morning. And there are guys who have kids with brain tumors, wives who have got over breast cancer. And they're scared to death. They don't want to bring the virus home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As a shopper for Shipt, Target's delivery service, Willy Solis is an essential worker right now. But the job is essential for him too.

  • Willy Solis:

    I honestly open up my bank account to see how much money is there and figure out if it's something that I have to go out and venture out into the — into the world to kind of expose myself to make money. Today's one of those days.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Solis, who is immunocompromised, has his own rituals to stay safe before entering a store. He repeats his rules to reduce his anxiety.

  • Willy Solis:

    Remember social distancing. Remember to give you yourself some space. Six feet apart.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    After he leaves each store, an exhaustive decontamination, disinfectant spray on his clothes and even his hat, then immediately washing his clothes and showering once back in his home.

    It's stressful, he says, but he can't afford to stop working.

  • Willy Solis:

    If it wasn't for the limited amount times that I'm out there, I wouldn't have any money to put in — gas in my car or food on the table.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The work of these essential workers can seem thankless. Their customers are hidden behind doors. The less contact, the safer they all stay.

    But more and more, during this pandemic, some customers are finding ways to connect, and show their gratitude to the workers they have come to rely on.

    In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 11-year-old Emerson Weber, an avid and prolific letter writer, decided to write one to her own mail carrier, Doug.

    Why did you decide to write him a letter?

  • Emerson Weber:

    I knew he saw a lot of letters, but he may not receive a lot. So I just wanted to put it in there to brighten his day during work.

    "Hi. How are you?"

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Doug shared the letter with his boss, who shared it with more colleagues, who shared it with more. Next thing she knew, Emerson was getting letters from postal workers across the entire country.

    There were people writing and things like, "I work alone in a small rural post office," people writing and saying, "My kids all live far away."

    Did you expect that total strangers would open up like that?

  • Hugh Weber:

    I certainly didn't.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Her father, Hugh Weber.

  • Hugh Weber:

    And we sat, as a family, and just read — read them all aloud. And it was also this moment of recognizing how much we needed that kind of echo back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    New connections made, even as old ones are tested.

    At the end of every day for Latonya Outlaw, another ritual before she can greet her two young children.

  • Latonya Outlaw:

    And I always try to keep that distance before I actually go and get myself ready for the end of the day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is that odd for you to not walk in the door and immediately be able to hug your kids?

  • Latonya Outlaw:

    It's hurtful to a certain degree. But I know we have to maintain that distance just for a short period of time until I can get myself in a position where I feel safe enough to give them hugs and kisses.

    And it is just still such a blessing to be safe and well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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