A few months ago, you would not have found postal workers discussing a mask made out of underwear and cans of oxygen (those are to help keep up oxygen levels while wearing a mask for a long time) in the mailroom at the post office. Even less likely would’ve been said mask being given as a gag gift to celebrate a mail carrier’s retirement. But, as with many other things in our lives today, the Covid-19 pandemic has made the abnormal feel normal.
For Dan Killough – who has been a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service since 1998 – the pandemic is just another obstacle to work around. He remembers when the swine flu was spreading in 2009, and in 2001 when letters laced with anthrax were anonymously being mailed to media companies and congressional offices. He says viruses don’t last long on paper, and says his time serving in the Navy prepared him for pretty much anything. Regardless, he was grateful when Postmaster Pedro Flores provided the staff at the post office on Hartnell Street in Monterey with hand sanitizer and masks when both were in short supply around the country.
“I don’t know where he got it all, but he came through,” Killough says. Although he wasn’t very concerned about the possibility of contracting the virus himself, even while handling mail touched by hundreds of individuals, he knew some of his colleagues were.
Pandemic or no pandemic, the mail has to go out, and their jobs were deemed essential. And with people staying home and businesses closed, they saw a spike in online shopping. The number of packages being delivered by the downtown Monterey post office is up 70 percent over this time last year, Flores says, and more populated areas, such as San Jose, have reported increases of 150 to 300 percent in parcels.
Beyond a narrow hallway, bins in the Monterey post office are literally overflowing with boxes. Flores is hopeful that the increase will help supplement the continued loss of small parcels and rolls (envelopes, postcards, letters) the postal service has seen over the last decade. According to data on the U.S. Postal Service’s website, mail volume steadily decreased from 170.9 billion pieces in 2010 to 142.6 billion in 2019.
Each morning, Killough and more than a dozen other mail carriers start their day between 8-8:30am. There’s no shortage of energy – jokes are cracked, mail is swiftly organized on shelves and wheels spin on concrete as people maneuver bins full of boxes through the bustling mailroom.
When the volume of letters being mailed was higher and nothing was sorted automatically, mail carriers spent about four hours sorting mail and four hours distributing it. Many had ashtrays clipped to the side of the table at their stations as they smoked cigarettes, Flores and Killough remember. Now, the sorting takes an hour or less and the common accessory is a mask, rather than a cigarette.
Once the sorting is done, each carrier starts a giant game of tetris. The goal is to fit all the day’s packages in the mail truck so they only have to make one trip, but sometimes they have to come back for a second load. (The trucks are more than 30 years old, and weren’t designed to carry large packages like UPS or FedEx trucks.)
When the game of tetris is won (or defeat has been accepted), Killough puts on his mask and heads out into the community to deliver mail. He says that since the Covid-19 pandemic started, people have been nicer than usual. “The ones stuck at home want to sit and chat,” Killough says. Some businesses have closed, and their mail sits in a cubby on a shelf in the post office where it stays until they come in to claim it. Some that remained open put out water and snacks as an appreciation.
And he doesn’t mind. Being out on the street and delivering mail on the same routes for years has allowed him to get to know almost everyone he delivers to. “It brings the community together for me,” he says.