p until about a year ago, carrying mail for the United States Postal Service was among the most predictable ways to earn a living. My father did it for 20 years, and I worked alongside him for two of them. You show up, throw magazines and loose letters into the labeled slots at your designated mail case, and deliver the route. You come back when the truck is empty, and the next morning, you get to work filling it up again. A Sisyphean means of community service. “Every day!” echoing in a sing-songy voice on the floor by carriers with a strong sense of gallows humor: The mail never stops, and it’ll keep going long after they’re gone.
Until last year, that is, when the pandemic began to crush this American institution under the weight of its sworn duty. As frontline workers, carriers began getting sick: By September last year, roughly 8 percent of postal workers had taken time off as a result of illness or exposure, a percentage that surely increased along with cases. Considering the increase in overall mail volume thanks to the pandemic’s e-commerce boom, this resulted in overworked carriers covering unprecedented levels of empty routes. On-time delivery of presorted first class mail fell from 94 percent at the end of 2019 to 91 percent after the start of the pandemic in 2020.
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