A US Postal Service employee wears a mask and delivers mail in Copley Square in Boston on April 9, 2020.
Lane Turner—The Boston Globe /Getty Images
April 16, 2020 4:22 PM EDT

Each morning, Melissa Rakestraw waits in the parking lot of the post office in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, until exactly 7:30AM, when she has to go inside to start sorting the day’s mail. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Rakestraw, who has worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 25 years, didn’t mind arriving early. She would go inside and spend the time joking with her colleagues about Chicago sports before her shift.

Now she doesn’t want to spend one more minute inside the cramped office than she has to. After sorting her mail in a room where there can be up to 70 people working at a time, she goes to her delivery truck and scrubs everything down with Clorox wipes that she bought herself. On her route, she urges customers to stand six feet away when she gives them their mail, and tries not to think about her possible exposure to the virus, or how it would impact her as an asthma sufferer. “You literally would not be able to function if you thought about all the possible ways you could come into contact with the virus,” Rakestraw says. “The fear would be absolutely paralyzing.”

Rakestraw is just one of millions of workers keeping the country afloat as most Americans stay indoors and wait for coronavirus to stop its deadly spread. But she and the other roughly 600,000 other U.S. Postal Service employees find themselves in the unique position of facing a two-pronged crisis: trying to stay healthy on the frontlines of an unprecedented health crisis while their organization inches toward a fiscal cliff that could potentially send many of them to the unemployment office.

Many postal service employees have seen their workload double since Americans started ordering more medicine and food online from inside their homes. But the volume of letter mail – the agency’s biggest revenue stream – has fallen. Earlier this month, Megan Brennan, the U.S. Postmaster General, told the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that revenue losses this fiscal year could reach $13 billion. Last month, the federal government set up a $10 billion loan for USPS as part of its $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, which USPS executives deem wholly insufficient. The agency’s board of governors, appointed by President Donald Trump, appealed to Congress for $75 billion to keep the operation running.

This precarious position is making an exhausted and anxious workforce feel worse. As of April 15, nearly 900 workers have tested positive for the virus, according to USPS Spokesperson David Partenheimer. Union representatives say thousands more are quarantined. Partenheimer acknowledged there have been “some deaths” among staff, but did not provide an exact number.

In conversations with a dozen USPS personnel like Rakestraw, employees across the country said they were frequently working without proper supplies like masks and gloves. They described dirty workplaces, and the impossibility of being able to comply with social distancing protocols. They all felt the government was leaving them behind, and possibly endangering them, by failing to bolster their organization. “We’re told we are essential workers. That our labor is necessary right now. We’re all putting our lives on the line,” says Rakestraw. She doesn’t understand, she says, why the federal government won’t step up to offer more help.

Keep up to date on the growing threat to global health by signing up for our daily coronavirus newsletter.

The Postal Service was already in financial trouble before the pandemic hit. Mail volume has been declining for years as more people communicate and do business online. The agency was also severely hamstrung by a 2006 law requiring it to pre-fund health benefits for retired workers, a highly unusual mandate which has cost it at least $70 billion. In 2019 alone, it recorded a net loss of $8.8 billion, according to that year’s annual report to Congress.

The agency’s shaky finances, coupled with the coronavirus-induced collapse in mail volume, has put the service close to “the brink,” says Rep. Gerry Connolly, who oversees the Congressional subcommittee leading the push for more funding. “But essential services still have to go on.”

After coronavirus hit the U.S., and the government started to draft its relief package for impacted businesses, Democrats in both the House and Senate pushed for upward of $20 billion in direct assistance to the Postal Service, but it ultimately received just a $10 billion credit loan in the package that Trump signed into law last month.

Democratic aides said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was leading the negotiations for the White House, refused to include any relief for the agency beyond the loan. The U.S. airline industry, by comparison, received $58 billion, half in the form of grants. A Treasury spokesperson said the administration is supportive of the loan and working with USPS to put it into effect.

Proponents of more bailout money for USPS say the decision was political, pointing out that Mnuchin led the task force on the agency that pushed for cost-cutting reforms. Trump has frequently railed against the Postal Service. “It’s ideologically driven,” says Connolly of the Administration’s opposition to funding the agency. “It’s big. It’s unionized. And they want to privatize it. And that’s their agenda even in the middle of a pandemic. To me, that is repugnant.”

USPS executives, for their part, are already pushing for more.As Congress and the Administration take steps to support businesses and industries around the country, it is imperative that they also take action to shore up the finances of the Postal Service, and enable us to continue to fulfill our indispensable role during the pandemic,” Brennan said in a April 10 statement the day after the Board of Governors told Congress they would need another $75 billion.

Workers across the country are aware of the debate of the future of their workplace unfolding in Washington. But they have been focused on more immediate concerns: finding the right supplies to keep themselves safe and their workstations clean as it has become clear they will have a central role in getting the country through the pandemic.

USPS has said the safety of its workers is the organization’s top priority. Millions of masks, gloves, and cleaning and sanitizing products were being sent to the agency’s 30,000 locations across the country, the organization said in an April 2 statement. It also said every effort was being made to comply with social distancing measures and cleaning protocol issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

USPS personnel in nine cities interviewed by TIME say their working conditions vary. Kelly Mathaw, a mail carrier in Detroit, says her management team has been proactive in procuring the necessary protective gear for her and her colleagues, buying gloves for them at the supermarket and reimbursing her for whatever she’s bought herself. But others say as the virus spread rapidly across the country last month, protective supplies have been scant, and their buildings remain dirty.

Rakestraw, the carrier from Illinois, says her plant has a wall-mounted dispenser of hand sanitizer, but that no one tells the carriers to fill individual containers when they go on their routes. She relies on her own stash of disinfectant wipes. Maria Risener, a window clerk in Lynden, Washington, said throughout most of March, there were no gloves that fit her size small or extra-small hands. She could not do her job in the sizes that were available, so she ultimately just didn’t use them. Sneeze guards at the windows in her office were installed March 27. But by that point, there were over 3,700 confirmed coronavirus cases in Washington state, an early hotspot for the virus. She recalls customers coming in and coughing without covering their faces. “They did order us whatever they could and it just did not get there in time,” Risener says of her employer. “There’s a lot of anxiety that’s going on with a lot of postal workers.”

Workers also voiced concerns about the overall cleanliness of their workplaces. The USPS sent a memo to management on February 3 titled “Influenza and Coronavirus Cleaning Contingency” that laid out CDC guidelines for cleaning facilities. Many workers said they felt that advice has been largely discarded. Workers in New Jersey and New York City — two of the hardest-hit areas in the country —described bathrooms that, as of March and April, respectively, lacked soap and paper towels.

“Our office is always pretty much dirty,” says Risener. “but now with this coronavirus obviously those conditions present an even bigger problem.” The custodian hired to clean her office is only contracted to work two hours a day on weekdays, she says, and was recently self-quarantining. During that time, Risener recalls the substitute did not even empty the trash. “The substitute custodian said our office was too dirty, [and] didn’t want to clean anything. … and she’s not held accountable for it.”

Union leaders representing postal workers acknowledge there have been discrepancies in the distribution of supplies, and say they are working feverishly with USPS leadership to correct any problems. “When you have 30,000 post offices you are going to have gaps. You’ve just got to find them,” says Fredric Rolando, the President of the National Association of Letter Carriers, the largest union representing USPS workers. “It’s finding those gaps every day, every hour. Making sure protocols are being followed, supplies are being provided – that’s what we concentrate on every day.”

Partenheimer, the USPS spokesperson, acknowledged that “there were some initial supply chain issues that we faced,” but says that they have been addressed. Asked about the complaints about the cleanliness of USPS facilities, Partenheimer said USPS was complying with CDC guidelines, and that private contract companies are available “as needed,” particularly when an employee has tested positive and worked in the building.

USPS leaders and some lawmakers in Washington are still arguing for more relief for the USPS to be included in future relief packages. But even if they’re successful, an infusion of cash won’t necessarily go to procuring more hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes – of which there is a universal shortage – or more custodians to clean offices around the country.

When Brennan, the postmaster general, told Congress that coronavirus-related losses this fiscal year could reach $13 billion, she was anticipating losses due to provisions like paid leave and contract workers to replace quarantined employees, according to both Rolando and Partenheim. “The Postal Service isn’t saying we can’t get supplies there because we don’t have money,” says Rolando. “The revenue is about continuing the long-term operations.”

Some workers, however, feel strongly that a financial lifeline would also make their workplace safer. They say the years of tenuous finances have created an environment where management has been forced to prioritize revenue at the expense of workers. It was only when the pandemic hit and they found themselves on the frontlines that the dynamic turned life threatening.

“The number one priority before this all happened was what we call the numbers: the bosses getting as much work done with as little hours used as possible,” says Rakestraw. “They are putting out the messages, ‘Oh yeah we are following CDC guidelines,’ but in actuality the workforce managers are not enforcing these things because they are still prioritizing how fast they can get the mail delivered.”

Partenheimer wrote in an e-mail to TIME that the safety of USPS employees is the agency’s highest priority. “We are proud of the work our employees play in processing, transporting, and delivering mail and packages for the American public,” he wrote.

Risener, the window clerk from Washington state, says that at the very least the funds would provide a much-needed morale boost — and enable her and her colleagues to stop worrying about their retirement funds while trying to stay alive. “Were we to get some [federal] relief, it would ease the burden,” she says. “It’s not just the uncertainty of the virus, but the uncertainty of the Postal Service that weighs heavily on us.”

Please send tips, leads, and stories from the frontlines to virus@time.com.

Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com.

Read More From TIME

Related Stories

EDIT POST