AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Postal workers say they're not receiving the right training or supplies to protect themselves from the coronavirus. With just about 500,000 employees, the U.S. Postal Service is one of the country's largest employers. And as Sally Herships reports, workers like letter carriers are scared. They don't want to be carriers of another kind, unwittingly spreading the virus or catching it themselves.
SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: By now, we know; social distance - do not interact with others. Work from home if you can. But imagine your job requires you to do the opposite. You'd want to be prepared, right?
BETH: The management isn't giving us gloves. They're not providing hand sanitizer, and there's no place on the street to wash our hands every so often.
HERSHIPS: Beth (ph) works for the post office. She's a letter carrier in the Midwest. She says there are a lot of big apartment buildings on her route, so she sees a lot of people every day.
BETH: People will just walk up to me and be like, yo, can I have my mail?
HERSHIPS: Beth isn't her real name. We're not using it because she's afraid if she complains, she'll get disciplined and could even lose her job. But she's worried. Beth says the instructions she and her co-workers are getting aren't good enough. Wash your hands. And if you're sick, don't come to work. But she says that leads to another problem.
BETH: In the Postal Service, basically, if you call in, like, more than three days in a row, you get a letter of warning.
HERSHIPS: Beth says that unofficial policy could encourage sick workers to come in and spread the virus. But in an email to NPR, a Postal Service representative said the number of days an employee is absent has no direct correlation to discipline and that employee safety is its highest priority. Workers get flyers, videos and talks all about the virus. But I heard from workers around the country, like Beth. They texted and called and emailed. One wrote, I spent most of last night crying before coming in because there are no precautions that can be taken, and no one in the office seems to care.
BETH: Let's see; how long does coronavirus last on paper? Oh, it's a top search.
HERSHIPS: Christopher Gill teaches global health at Boston University School of Public Health.
There is a lot of rumors flying, so I wanted to clear some up. So the first question I have is, can you get the coronavirus from paper?
CHRISTOPHER GILL: Probably, but I guess we would have to say we do not know.
HERSHIPS: Gill says there's still a lot to learn about how long the virus can stay active on different surfaces. The latest evidence suggests it can remain viable on cardboard for up to 24 hours, but that information comes from a lab study. And real-world conditions might be different.
GILL: What we can say is that, you know, the starting concentration of virus on a parcel, you know, in a post office is probably pretty low to start with - right? - because we're not, like, slobbering and licking all over our packages.
HERSHIPS: USPS says according to the surgeon general, the CDC and the World Health Organization, there's no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail. Still, Gill says, just to be safe, don't lick your envelopes.
GILL: You should use some other method for doing that to avoid contaminating it with your saliva.
HERSHIPS: Robert Maloney (ph) has been a letter carrier for 31 years. He loves his job, and he's proud of it. He feels safe at work, and he says his community depends on workers like him to deliver medicine and supplies. But he's torn.
ROBERT MALONEY: Yes, I want to have that pride. I want to go out and show the public we're going to get through this. But are we doing a disservice by carrying this virus around to more people?
HERSHIPS: Maloney says his wife is a cancer survivor. God forbid he brings the virus home to her. The postmaster general is allowing more executives to work from home. But as for other workers, the mail must get through.
For NPR News, I'm Sally Herships.
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