This story was updated on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, at 10:20 a.m. with a new statement from the Postal Service.
The Postal Service, as an independent agency, is setting its own rules on masks and vaccines apart from the rest of the federal workforce, but is seeing an uptick in employees who need to quarantine as the delta variant of COVID-19 presents new challenges for the agency.
The American Postal Workers Union (APWU), in a July 26 message to its members, said USPS “unilaterally” changed its policy last month to no longer require fully vaccinated employees and contractors to wear a mask at work.
USPS updated its mask policy for fully vaccinated employees on July 16 to allow fully vaccinated employees not to wear a mask, except when required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations. The agency also informed managers and supervisors not to ask employees to verify their vaccination status.
But APWU data shows quarantines among the USPS workforce have increased by nearly 30% in the last month, and have ticked upward in the weeks since the agency lifted the mask mandate.
USPS employees who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 must still wear a mask in situations where they can’t maintain a six-foot distance from other employees, and in public settings where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations.
“The APWU leadership, including the National Executive Board, was not in agreement with this policy change,” APWU President Mark Dimondstein and Director of Industrial Relations Vance Zimmerman said in the letter to employees. “The APWU believes that a face mask requirement is still necessary as it is too early to relax the policy and the vaccination rate among residents of the United States is not at levels needed to stop mask wearing. Unfortunately, our concerns are proving to be true.”
USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer told Federal News Network Wednesday that the agency is “aware of the CDC’s recently updated face covering guidance and is currently reviewing it.”
“Any decision to revise our current face covering policy will be made only after internal discussions and engagement of all relevant stakeholders,” Partenheimer said.
USPS is charting its own course on masks and vaccines at a time when the rest of the federal workforce faces a tightening of restrictions. Agencies last week reinstated mask mandates for employees working in areas of substantial or high community transmission of COVID-19.
Administration officials, however, told Federal News Network Tuesday that USPS employees are not subject to the administration’s vaccine guidance, but are “strongly encouraged” to follow it. The Washington Post first reported USPS employees were not subject to the federal workforce’s vaccination requirements.
APWU data shows total quarantines among the USPS workforce hit a low point on June 28, when fewer than 2,600 employees were out on leave. Those quarantines, however, continue to trend upward and exceeded 3,200 on July 23.
While USPS can impose its own vaccine requirements for its workforce, Dimondstein and Zimmerman said APWU “has [ensured] that the USPS does not institute a mandatory vaccine policy,” but encourages all eligible people to get the vaccine.
“The science and statistics show that people who are vaccinated have a much lower risk of contracting the disease, spreading the disease, being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19. While vaccinated people can still contract COVID-19 in limited circumstances (known as “breakthrough” cases), the number of these cases are significantly less, the course of the disease is much milder, and the death rate amongst the vaccinated is extremely low,” they wrote.
The increase in employee quarantines comes at a time when Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is surging the agency’s workforce to prepare for the peak holiday season at the end of the year.
DeJoy recently told employees in a video message that he plans to hire 40,000 seasonal workers and convert 33,000 non-career employees to career status. He said the agency hires, on average, about 10,000 new employees each month, but is trying to prevent a critical employee shortage that led to widespread delivery delays last year.
“We want to ensure that we have every available current employee in place. Your presence is important during the crucial peak timeframe. We will need all hands on deck,” DeJoy said in the video message.
Dimondstein and Zimmerman said APWU still encourages members to wear masks in all facilities where postal employees work, warning that “this is not the time to relax and become complacent.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. While all of us are suffering from some level of ‘COVID Fatigue’ now is not the time to relax the precautions one can take to prevent contracting and spreading COVID-19,” they wrote.