For the last two weeks, eight local post offices have opened late, been shut for lunch, or have not had anyone working at all, prompting a slew of customers to complain.. File photo: Quinn Dombrowski

Eight post offices have been left without sufficient staff to operate fully after two postal workers in the Berkeley/Albany service area tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-July, prompting some of their co-workers to self-quarantine. Another worker based in Oakland who delivered mail to Berkeley has also died.

One of the women who tested positive worked at the Albany post office on Solano Avenue. The other worked mostly at the Detached Delivery Unit (DDU) office on Eighth Street but delivered mail and packages to other post offices, thereby potentially exposing others. For the last two weeks, some of the eight offices have opened late, been shut for lunch, or have not had anyone working at all, prompting a slew of customers to complain.

“Berkeley has never been impacted like this,” said one postal worker, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the press. He has been quarantining at home for almost two weeks.  “We have never had such a shortage of clerks and customers aren’t being told what is going on.”

He said from five to six postal workers, including himself, have been quarantining for about two weeks.

“There is a staffing shortage because of this Covid,” said Lisa Ortega, the president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 47, which includes Berkeley. “Members are quarantining themselves for 14 days.”

Augustine Ruiz, Jr., a spokesperson for the postal service, acknowledged that two workers had come down with the coronavirus but could not say if that led to the staffing shortage that has caused disruption in eight post offices. They include the main post office at 2000 Allston Way, Station A at 2111 San Pablo Ave., the South Berkeley post office at 3175 Adeline St., the North Berkeley station at 1521 Shattuck Ave., the Landscape station at 1831 Solano Ave., the Elmwood post office at 2705 Webster St., the Berkeley district unit at 1150 Eight St. and the Albany branch as 1191 Solano Ave.

Ruiz also declined to confirm because of privacy constraints hat a postal worker based in Oakland recently died from complications of COVID-19. But he did offer his sympathies.

“The employee was a dedicated public servant, and we extend our deepest condolences to the family and colleagues of our co-worker during this difficult time,” said Ruiz.

The man was Keith Robinson, 61, of Vallejo, who drove a distribution truck out of Oakland for the USPS, according to workers who knew him and news reports. Richards died Thursday of the coronavirus. His wife, Gwendolyn Robinson, 62, who worked in Yountville at the Veterans’ Home of California, died of COVID-19 0n July 18, according to KTVU news. Their three children have set up a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for funeral expenses.

“They are not even wiping down the counters”

One of those who tested positive said the post office’s lax sanitation schedule might have been why she contracted the virus. Even though the post office says it follows Center for Diseases Control (CDC) guidelines, the office she worked in was not cleaned every day, she said. She took to making up her own solution of water, bleach and alcohol to clean her station. She also paid for hand sanitizer to sit on the counter.

Ortega said she brought up the cleaning issue with upper management at the Bay-Valley District, which encompasses Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose and most of the East Bay. They informed her that post offices are cleaned daily, she said.

Ruiz said each office has a custodial cleaning staff. Coronavirus is unlikely to be spread by mail, he said, according to the CDC and the United States Surgeon General. He released a statement about cleaning protocols:

“Out of an abundance of caution, we will enhance and supplement current cleaning protocols using disinfectants across the facility.

As part of our concern for the health and welfare of our employees, we continue to reinforce safe practices and provide items to keep them safe, such as:

  • Ensuring masks, gloves and sanitizing products are distributed and available to employees.
  • Distributing sanitizing and cleaning products to all locations through our Postal Service supply chain.
  • Reinforcing workplace behaviors to ensure that contact among employees and customers reflects the best guidance regarding healthy interactions, social distancing, and risk minimization.”

The female postal worker learned she had COVID-19 when she went to Kaiser for a procedure and had to take a test before the operation, she said. Her last day at work was July 10.

The worker who self-quarantined also expressed outrage that USPS managers did not immediately inform him and others that they may have been exposed. In fact, the postal nurse in Oakland told the woman from the Albany branch not to tell her co-workers. The nurse said the policy was for her to do that.

The woman told her co-workers anyway.

Customers ask if degraded service is calculated campaign

The deteriorated postal service in Berkeley and Albany the last few weeks was frustrating to people who found offices empty or had to wait in long lines to mail packages. Some took to Twitter to share their experiences of visiting post offices and offer suggestions of locations that were better staffed.

Others worried there were larger forces at play.

The U.S. Postal service has been struggling financially for more than a decade, partly because the rise of email and the internet means that fewer people are mailing letters, many magazines have gone digital and advertising has moved online.

Congress also passed a law in 2006  mandating that USPS prepay  75 years of its retiree health benefits, a cost of approximately $110 billion. That obligation has dragged down USPS’s financials.

To raise funds, USPS has been selling off a number of its historical post offices in the last five years. It tried to sell Berkeley’s main post office, at 2000 Allston Way. The city of Berkeley created a historic overlay of the civic center area to thwart those plans and a U.S. District Court judge ruled that was legal. After that, the USPS dropped its plans to sell the historic building.

A few weeks ago,

Louis DeJoy, a major GOP campaign donor and the owner of a logistics firm, became the postmaster general. In a July 27 statement, DeJoy said that the post office is in “a financially unsustainable position, stemming from substantial declines in mail volume, and “a broken business model.” He pointed out that a recent report by the Postal Service Inspector General “indicated that the Postal Service spent $1.1 billion in mail processing overtime and penalty overtime, $280 million in late and extra transportation, and $2.9 billion in delivery overtime and penalty overtime costs in FY 2019.” DeJoy has called for “adjustments” in postal services operations. He is calling for carriers to leave mail behind if sorting it will cause them to work overtime. This has caused days-long backlogs in delivering mail, according to a Washington Post report.

Ruiz said this region has not seen the memo that allegedly delineates that policy. “That memo doesn’t exist,” he said. However, the region is looking to increase efficiencies, as the new postmaster general has suggested.

“We’re looking to improve it (service) in a day-to-day” way, he said.

Motherboard, a Vice publication, and other news outlets have reported that post offices around the country are slashing hours as a way to cut costs.

“It’s difficult to get a complete picture of how many of the post office’s 31,322 retail locations nationwide are impacted by the new hours,” the Vice article states. Elizabeth Coonan, a steward for the American Postal Workers Union Local 3264 in the Clarksburg, West Virginia area “told Motherboard that in her region of West Virginia 26 offices are being forced to reduce hours from the typical eight-hour weekday schedule to under four hours per day. Another 31 offices are being forced to close during lunch hours, typically among the busiest times of day at a post office. Frank Bollinger, the business agent for APWU Local 526 in southern New Jersey, told Motherboard that 10 offices in his region are dropping from nine open hours per weekday to four, while another 30 are slated to close during lunch hours.”

There is no indication that hours have been deliberately slashed yet in East Bay.

Others have said they believe the slowdown in postal operations is a set-up by President Trump to undermine the efficacy of mail-in ballots by slowing their delivery. Trump has tweeted numerous times that he believes vote-by-mail is fraudulent.

The Berkeley postal worker who self-quarantined said that “mail-in ballots are treated with deference.” Workers even pass through ballots that don’t have enough postage, he said.

Update Aug. 2: This article originally said President Trump appointed the new postmaster general. That was incorrect as a nine-member board appointed by the president selects the new postmaster general. The article has been updated.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...