Consistent access to clean drinking water, uninterrupted electricity, safe public transportation services, weekly collection of household waste, and timely delivery of mail and packages—these are some of the daily resources we, as Americans, take for granted. The aforementioned services are all part of what the government of the United States of America has defined as essential.
On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic due to COVID-19. Soon after, state governors throughout the US announced stay at home orders for residents. Companies and organizations asked their employees to work remotely. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 10% of federal employees have a service job. Due to the nature of their job, they do not have the luxury to work from home.
A single mother with two jobs, Tina Lee’s story is one of hard work, resilience, and strength. Lee speaks of her job, as a rural mail carrier, with a tone of humility and gratitude. Even though she has to work during this pandemic, there is no sense of anger or resentment. Throughout our conversation, she remained cool, calm, and collected, virtues that are of great value during this pandemic.
“Mail carriers are considered part of the essential work force in this country,” said Lee, a resident of Walhalla, a rural town in South Carolina. Lee continues to work six days a week during the pandemic. While she loves her job, it has been particularly difficult to obtain appropriate childcare for her two children who are home due to school closures. Since this is a unique situation, characterized by a disease that requires social distancing to mitigate transmission, it is nearly impossible to find babysitters to take care of her children. “Even then I manage with the help of my mother, neighbor, and some friends,” she humbly said.
Lee enjoys her part time job. She delivers mail to the rural towns of Oconee County and appreciates driving through the beautiful quiet neighborhoods as it gives her ample alone time. “I hope to soon be employed as a full-time mail carrier,” she said in an optimistic tone.
Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that approximately 10% of USPS employees earn an estimate of $16 per hour while 50% of them earn approximately $27.50 per hour. The rates depend on the city and state of employment. While major cities such as New York City and Boston pay their mail carriers high salaries, rural towns cannot afford to pay such high amounts. Even then, to Lee there are prospects of a long-term career which makes the job more attractive.
According to the United States Postal Services website, there is a designated COVID-19 command response team, that consists of employees and leaders, dedicated to employee and customer safety in conjunction with operational continuity. Lee stated that she has been provided gloves, N95 respirators, and hand sanitizers that she can use throughout the day. They currently have enough supplies, so she does not have to re-use any of the supplies. Additionally, the USPS has hired extra cleaning services to clean their equipment. Due to the extended levels of precautions observed by the USPS, she feels safe working.
Since Lee is employed as a part time worker, she does not have healthcare and retirement benefits. However, if she suspects that she has been exposed to COVID-19 or has any signs and symptoms, she is required to follow the appropriate isolation protocols.
While Lee reflects on her experiences as a mail carrier, there are many Americans like her who must work in order to survive and provide for their families. According to data from the Pew Research Center, one in four parents living with a child in the US are single. For single mothers, there are pressures to devote time to care for their children while also earning a reasonable income to financially support them. As a result, single mothers are constantly juggling to manage with scarce resources. Lee added that in order to maintain a sustainable livelihood, she has two jobs. In addition to her work at the USPS, she cleans houses for families but during this time that work has also come to a halt as people are limiting interactions with each other.
It is no surprise that during a pandemic of this scale, Lee can manage her work, take care of her children, and maintain her own needs. She is perhaps better equipped to handle this new lifestyle than those who have never faced such challenges. In fact, her story may provide inspiration and motivation to many who are struggling to adjust during this unpredictable time in our history.
As I ended my conversation with Lee, I felt a deeper sense of appreciation for essential workers who keep our country running smoothly. I post letters and cards to family and friends on a regular basis as I believe those interactions cannot be replaced by high-end technology. During this pandemic, my card-writing activities have continued just as Lee’s work has continued. I am impressed by the way in which routine services continue in this country, even amid a global pandemic.
In addition to mail carriers, there are many others such as truck drivers, waste management workers, and law enforcement officers who ensure that this country is functioning efficiently. My hope is that even after this pandemic is over, we will continue to appreciate all the service workers, who ensure we survive through this unprecedented period by working for the country. I hope we can appreciate many people, like Lee, who provide the most basic services we need on a daily basis, be it in terms of ensuring our shipments are delivered on time, keeping our homes and cities clean, or protecting the citizens of our country.