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Worried on the route, mail carriers press forward amid pandemic

Letter carrier Keith Puchalski walked along a quiet Randolph Avenue, a stuffed satchel slung over his right hip as he recently hand-delivered letters and packages along his East Side mail route.

Puchalski wore the United States Postal Service's standard issue blue pants with a vertical navy stripe, but also a couple of added accessories: a hood doubling as a face mask and latex gloves.

Mail carriers are used to looking out for aggressive dogs, unruly people and poorly maintained properties. But now they confront an invisible enemy: Covid-19.

"Things are definitely different," Puchalski said. "You're always cautious, but you're a little more cautious now. Sometimes people want to come up to you, or you would hand mail or packages to someone you may know on your route. But you can't do that anymore."

Puchalski said his route feels different, too.

"Normally, if the kids are off from school, you'd see a ton of people," he said. "Now it's a ghost town."

Some 1,400 letter carriers belong to National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 3, which covers a large swath of Western New York, according to David J. Grosskopf Jr., the local's president. About 700 work in Buffalo. Four postal employees have tested positive for Covid-19.

Nationally, 1,219 Postal Service workers in a 630,000-person workforce had tested positive as of Tuesday. The American Postal Workers Union, one of several labor groups representing Postal Service employees, said there have been 44 deaths.

"There is fear, there is anxiety and there is apprehensiveness," Grosskopf said. "You are getting conflicting information coming out of different levels of the government. It's very difficult to figure out fact from fiction."

Postal employees who handle and deliver mail are protected with personal protective equipment – gloves, masks, hand sanitizer – and are given recommended protocols for staying safe, Grosskopf said. The Postal Service has been responsive to employee needs, he said.

Still, catching the coronavirus is something many mail carriers worry about.

"I think about it every day," said Puchalski, who typically delivers mail on eight to 12 streets, walking six to eight miles a day. "Management is providing us a lot of different personal protection equipment, but every day you never know.

"You listen to things on the radio, see things on the internet, hear Poloncarz say every day there is that many more illnesses, that many more deaths, and it's scary," he said referring to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Mail carrier Zak Darlak said he thinks about getting Covid-19, but follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and takes precautions.

"We touch over 600 mailboxes a day and come into contact with numerous people on the street," Darlak said.

He sanitizes his hands in his truck regularly, and he puts on a mask before entering a business or apartment building, though not while going house to house since he finds it hard to breathe for an extended period.

Mail carrier Jesica McGinnis uses hand sanitizer frequently on her Cheektowaga and East Side routes, and she is careful to practice social distancing. Unlike Puchalski, McGinnis said she sees a lot of people outside while delivering mail when the weather's nice.

The changing conditions outdoors have also brought a change in what mail carriers are delivering.

There has been a large influx of cards and letters since the pandemic began, as well as a decline in business mail, according to Darlak. Parcel deliveries, which he said normally numbered 50 to 60 along his East Side and Kaisertown routes, have skyrocketed to between 150 to 250 a day.

"In my 28 years we have never delivered more," Grosskopf said. "Every day is like Christmas."

The morning routine at the mail processing facility on William Street, used by letter carriers working the East Side, has changed to protect employees.

Starting times have been staggered to limit exposure. Social distancing is also now practiced at the mail case, where carriers sort mail pieces in the order in which they will be delivered.

Carriers now have to disinfect their truck with a spray or wipes before getting on the road to make sure no contaminants are left from the previous day.

Doctors, nurses and others in the medical profession have been widely praised for acting selflessly to save lives, frequently with inadequate protective clothing. Letter carriers – like grocery clerks, delivery drivers, janitors and others the public depends on and are in potentially dangerous situations – are also receiving newfound appreciation.

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"People in general like the mailman," Darlak said. "We typically will be given a bottle of water when it's hot. But it seems like [the appreciation] is increasing with people knowing we're risking ourselves to deliver their package or medicine, the essential things they need but can't leave home to get."

David Boal, who has a North Tonawanda route, said he has had people leave cards in mailboxes to thank him and tell him to keep up the good work. He has received gift cards and candy, too.

Someone on McGinnis' route left a care package of hand sanitizer, wipes and a mask. Others have left cards of appreciation.

"It lets you know customers care about you and your safety," said McGinnis, one of the 27% of female mail carriers in Branch 3.

McGinnis said she has also observed the generosity of people to one another, from the delivery of groceries to a family member's house to chalked messages in driveways meant for the public at large and, she said, sometimes mail carriers.

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