The U.S. Postal Service has asked federal labor officials for a temporary waiver from President Biden’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, setting up a showdown on pandemic safety measures between the president and one of the government’s largest agencies.
A vaccine-or-test mandate, he wrote, “is likely to result in the loss of many employees — either by employees leaving or being disciplined.”
The mandate takes effect Jan. 10, but OSHA officials have said the agency would not issue citations for violations until Feb. 9.
“We respectfully suggest that the nation cannot afford the additional potential substantial harm that would be engendered if the ability of the Postal Service to deliver mail and packages is significantly negatively impacted,” Tulino wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
The mail service’s request was met with fury from some House Democrats who have sparred with Postal Service leaders, including Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, on the agency’s delivery performance and handling of the pandemic. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), one of the architects of a Postal Service overhaul bill advancing in Congress, accused DeJoy of “play[ing] politics with the lives of our postal workers and every customer they serve.”
“Vaccines save lives. Sick postal workers, not shots in arms, is what will hurt the Postal Service and customers,” Connolly said in a statement. “Fire DeJoy.”
A White House spokesperson referred questions to OSHA. Representatives from OSHA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Postal Service asked OSHA to extend the compliance deadlines for the mandate by 120 days and to suspend the Postal Service’s obligations under the mandate until the courts have rendered a final ruling on the legality of the vaccine requirement. The Supreme Court is set to hear special arguments on the issue on Friday. In the meantime, Tulino wrote, the Postal Service has taken steps to prepare its human resources software to manage worker health data, started discussions with its labor unions on the mandate and begun revising its coronavirus vaccination, testing and face-covering policy.
He said the Postal Service’s feverishly busy holiday season would prevent the agency of 650,000 employees from timely compliance with the OSHA standards.
Experts say those reasons may be insufficient to persuade OSHA to grant what’s known as a “variance,” a technical process that requires employers to demonstrate alternative measures that would provide equal workplace protections.
“This seems hard to prove because there isn’t anything more effective than a vaccine,” said Jordan Barab, who served as OSHA deputy assistant secretary from 2009 to 2017. “It sounds to me that they have no basis applying for or being approved for a variance.”
Postal Service spokeswoman Darlene Casey said in an emailed statement that the agency will continue enforcing its existing coronavirus mitigation program, which includes a face-covering requirement, protocols for isolating workers showing covid-19 symptoms or who have tested positive, and intense cleaning regimens.
“The Postal Service is seeking temporary relief because it wants to ensure that its ability to deliver mail and packages is not hindered amid the current disruptions in the nation’s supply chain,” Casey said. “In addition, the Postal Service wants to adopt policies and procedures that comply with the [OSHA standard] while also fulfilling the organization’s other legal obligations.”
The Postal Service is already struggling with lagging service. Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 24 — the most hectic time of year for mail delivery — the Postal Service delivered 89.8 percent of first-class mail on time, against a goal of 95 percent timely delivery. The agency at the start of that period slowed down its delivery service, setting a new delivery window of three to five days, under DeJoy’s new 10-year plan for financial sustainability. DeJoy in November said he did not expect the Postal Service to hit its delivery performance goals until the end of 2022.
The Postal Service’s unions have been largely quiet on the Biden administration’s policies. The National Association of Letter Carriers has not taken a position on the vaccine mandate and told its members in September that it would “review and bargain over any rulings that affect our members.”
A spokesperson for the American Postal Workers Union, which represents mail clerks and workers in sorting plants, said the union supports “whatever it takes to keep our members safe and healthy and to keep the mail moving.”