Four dozen masked letter carriers in blue uniforms released balloons of the same hue in memory of a co-worker who died of COVID-19 a week after giving birth to her third child.
The balloons wafted into the May sky as the grieving comrades of 31-year-old Unique Clay then dispersed from the small park down the street from their post office on the South Side of Chicago. They returned to their respective routes and resumed delivering the mail at a time when non-essential workers were under a statewide order to shelter-in-place. They proceeded from address to address with the spirit of Clay and all the letter carriers who came before her.
“This is what we do,” Mack Julion, president of the Chas D. Duffy Branch #11 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, told the Daily Beast on Friday. “We deliver the mail.”
Every letter carrier takes an oath upon joining the United States Postal Service to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.” Their informal motto is, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Now add “nor COVID-19.”
Clay is currently the lone COVID-19 fatality among Chicago letter carriers, but more than 70 have tested positive. The great majority have recovered and emerged from quarantine after they were deemed no longer infectious.
“Many, of course, have returned to work,” Julion reported.
That included a letter carrier who recently confided to him how deeply she had been affected by her bout with the virus.
“She said how the thing really shook her core,” Julion recalled. “She thought she was going to die. Now she’s back at work.”
In Chicago and across the country, postal workers have been one manifestation of normality through the pandemic. The mail kept coming, no matter what.
And this was not the selfish recklessness of deluded souls who convinced themselves the virus was a hoax. This was the bravery of dedicated public servants who regularly witnessed the danger firsthand, but kept on going. The letter carriers at the Chicago balloon release were wearing masks because they know the threat is real.
Postal workers everywhere deserved the entire nation’s gratitude, but other foes joined the motto’s list.
Also add “...nor Trump, nor DeJoy.”
The day after Clark’s death on May 5 and three days before the balloon release, Trump appointed businessman Louis DeJoy as the new postmaster general. DeJoy replaced Megan Brennan, who had worked her way up from letter carrier. DeJoy’s only qualification seemed to be contributing in excess of $1.2 million to the Trump Victory Fund on top of millions more to a variety of Republican efforts.
DeJoy immediately set to proving he did not know the difference between a business and a public service. He cut overtime and had sorting machines removed and consolidated management in such a way that he lost some of his most experienced and astute administrators.
A memo in July titled “Pivoting for Our Future” decreed that letter carriers would no longer be permitted to make extra runs, as they sometimes did to ensure all of the day’s mail was delivered.
“One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that—temporarily—we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks,” the memo advised.
The future towards which the Postal Service was being pivoted includes a presidential election just four months away that will involve an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots as a result of the pandemic. Anyone leery of going to the polls because of COVID-19 does not likely view it as a hoax. Former President Barack Obama would suggest via Twitter that the pre-election upending of the post office was the work of an administration “more concerned with suppressing the vote than suppressing a virus.”
Whatever DeJoy’s actual motive may or may not be, true letter carriers were disturbed by the sight of mail going undelivered.
“It’s frustrating for us,” Julion said. “Because we know this is not what we do.”
In an organization of people sworn to get the mail delivered no matter what, DeJoy became known as “Delay.”
Meanwhile, Trump continued to falsely charge that mail-in balloting is tantamount to a “rigged election.” He actually came out and said on Fox Business Network’s Mornings with Maria that he planned to deny the Postal Service badly needed COVID-19 relief funds as a way of curtailing mail-in balloting.
“They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said. “If they don’t... that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
Trump subsequently backed off that naked declaration of election tampering, saying Friday that he would approve funding for the postal service if Democrats make concessions. That comment came after reports that he and Melania had themselves recently requested mail-in ballots to vote in Florida’s primary.
He had earlier touted Florida as the only place where mail-in voting is “safe and secure.” He may have since realized he was scaring his own Republican supporters there with his constant fearmongering about mail-in voting. Some 600,000 more Democrats than Republicans had applied to vote by mail when the number has been roughly even in previous elections.
But DeJoy has continued to live up to his nickname despite a letter signed by 47 senators expressing urgent concern over the effect his policies could have on the election. DeJoy’s counsel sent a letter of his own to all 50 states saying that ballots would have to be mailed at least 15 days before the election or the postal service might not be able to deliver them in time.
A “reorganized” postal service that had no trouble handling 1.3 billion Christmas cards during the last holiday season was saying it needed more than two weeks to deliver fewer than 130 million ballots
Nobody could have been much surprised when the many branches of the National Association of Letter Carriers endorsed Joe Biden for president on Friday.
What will likely have a bigger impact on the election is the avowed determination of the 300,000 letter carriers themselves to deliver the ballots this year no matter what DeJoy and his boss Trump do.
“Even more so than priority mail,” Julion said. “I’m confident, you get those ballots in our hands, we’re going to deliver them. If nothing else gets delivered, those ballots will.”
He added, “There's a message we want to deliver, too.”
The message is that nobody is going to steal this election if they can help it, that falsehoods and sabotage are not going to stop letter carriers from doing their sworn duty and thereby enabling people to exercise their right to vote even in a pandemic.
“This is what we do,” Julion repeated, adding, “We can handle it.”
The same determined response came when The Daily Beast asked postal workers in Florida and Arizona and New York. Julion reported that he is asked by family and friends and others he encounters in the course of the day whether they need to be worried.
“Don’t believe the fake news,” he tells them, meaning the news that actually is fake.
One call came from his Aunt Bettye in Cleveland.
“Hey, are we going to be OK?” she asked.
“Yes, we’re going to be OK, Aunt Bettye,” he told her.