As a crushing wave of omicron infections surges across Minnesota, mail carriers and garbage haulers say they're struggling to keep things going.
Some mail won't go out on time, a union official said, and a handful of garbage routes will see delays, according to a private hauler. The delays are brought on by a record-setting surge of COVID-19 cases connected with the highly contagious omicron variant.
"The letter carriers in the city are working so short-handed right now, it's nothing like anything I've ever seen before," said Troy Fredenburg, national business agent for Region 7 of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). He urged homeowners to shovel their walks and steps, and to leave their front lights on to help letter carriers working well past the usual end of their shifts.
A private garbage hauler with contracts across the Twin Cities metro area said omicron infections might lead to delays for at least some customers. Waste Management is encouraging sick employees to stay home as part of the company's effort to focus on the health and safety of its staff.
"Only 2 percent of our customer base in the Twin Cities metro area has been impacted," said Waste Management spokeswoman Julie Ketchum.
The federal government anticipated service delays in December when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its quarantine recommendations from 10 days to five. The shorter quarantine period was announced after scientists said most infections are spread one to two days before the onset of symptoms or two to three days after.
Shorter quarantines also will help keep society functioning, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert. Keeping the full 10-day quarantine in place while the omicron spikes "could have a major negative impact on our ability to keep society running," he said in December.
Fredenburg, of the mail carriers' union, said the omicron wave couldn't have come at a worse time. The holiday season for mail and package delivery is the busiest of the year for the U.S. Postal Service, and though that period ended two weeks ago, he said letter carriers are still seeing huge volumes of mail every day.
"Everybody I see who is working is working mega hours," he said.
It's not uncommon right now for postal workers to put in 10- to 12-hour days, for six or seven days a week, Fredenburg said. The stress and strain brought on by the shortage of workers means that some who are logging day after day of overtime must take breaks just for their mental and physical health, he said. "It's like a domino effect," Fredenburg said.
He said he estimates local staffing is down by 20%, mainly due to COVID. "There are routes within the city that have not gone out," he said. "We have very, very few that don't go out two days in a row."
On a recent day, local mail officials had more than 40 managers delivering mail. That's against the NALC's labor contract but, as Fredenburg said, "the mail has to go out." He said local managers have done as good a job as possible handling the pandemic's impact on mail operations.
When asked to comment about delays and working conditions, a local spokesperson for the Postal Service said they "are not aware of any pronounced service delays in the Twin Cities."