Shelter-in-Place: San Francisco postal worker in mask delivering mail during stay-at-home order.
Credit: Getty Images

It’s October 20, two weeks before Election Day. The double whammy that epidemiologists have feared strikes: Coronavirus infections surge as temperatures drop and people are staying indoors. At the same time, flu season takes hold. America’s healthcare system risks becoming overwhelmed. And an institution with thousands of workers susceptible to the virus is devastatingly impacted: the U.S. Postal Service.

Just as the volume of mail increases because of an election in which more people will vote by mail than any other in American history, letter carriers and postal workers—whose jobs require them to interact with each other in enclosed spaces and with the public—start getting sick. Healthy USPS employees naturally become scared, deciding not to come to work, as many did in the winter and spring. The decline in staff at that crucial time leads to mail delays and chaos for elections officials.

This is the nightmare scenario that postal union leaders delivered to USPS executives on September 17, urging administrative officials—such as the chief operations officer for mail processing and the vice president for labor relations —to plan for what might happen if large swaths of its workforce fall victim to a second surge of the virus in the days before the election.

In other words, without Donald Trump lifting a finger, he could get precisely what he wants: Dysfunction and disorder in the USPS, enabling him to claim vindication that vote by mail doesn’t work; to push for disenfranchising countless voters who cast ballots by mail; and possibly to assert, if it looks like he is losing, that the election is being rigged and that he should stay in power.

A virus temporarily crippling the postal service isn’t idle speculation. In March, for instance, when New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic, a Bronx mailman died of the virus. More postal deaths followed around the country. USPS leadership soon received frantic emails from mail carriers and their spouses nationwide begging the agency to protect its staff—who were on the front line of delivering medicines, supplies, and benefits checks—with more and better personal protective equipment and keep vulnerable workers out of harm’s way, according to a raft of documents recently obtained by The Washington Post. One local union leader urged the Postal Service to temporarily suspend operations in New York City.

It was no surprise, then, that mail delivery slowed down dramatically, at a time when more people were relying on the mail than usual because of physical distancing, and the USPS was experiencing severe staff shortages. To address the emergency, the Postal Service reached a memorandum of understanding with the major postal unions to allow for extended paid sick leave for letter carriers and postal workers—and to allow for the USPS to hire temporary workers to fill the void.

That helped in March, but the problem still persists. This year, nearly 35,000 postal workers have missed work due to being quarantined because of the virus, according to USPS data. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Kosar points out, that’s more than 5.5 percent of the agency’s workforce.

Given the volume of increased mail expected for the election, the unions floated another idea with USPS management last week: create a reserve of retired USPS workers who could replace anyone who gets sick in the three weeks before the election. If implemented, it could ensure that any potential spike in infections among USPS workers does not prevent ballots from being delivered and counted on time.

This plan, too, is not speculative. It’s what the USPS actually does every November and December for the holiday season, when there is an uptick in mail delivery. “We have a system in place that we use at Christmas time when we bring in retired members who want to make a little extra money and provide extra capacity,” a postal union official told me. It’s an effective way to avoid logjams at local post offices and processing centers.

One of the benefits of calling up retirees for the election, the official told me, is that it would avoid losing time training new workers. Instead, the reserve members would be prepared to start right away.

Will USPS management adopt this idea? Skepticism, of course, is more than a little warranted. After all, it was Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump mega-donor, who imposed cost-cutting measures that slowed down the mail this summer. But the ensuing public outcry, the threatened lawsuits, and the beating DeJoy took when testifying on Capitol Hill, may have led to a more cooperative mood in his office. At the meeting with the unions last week, USPS management agreed to extend the MOU­s from last spring, which was set to expire last Friday, authorizing the hiring of more temporary workers.

Postal union leaders are cautiously optimistic that management will greenlight the reserve worker plan, too. But it’s an issue that the press and the public need to keep an eye on over the next week or two and raise a fuss about if the idea is slow-walked or rejected. The USPS already knows how to create a reserve workforce to make the holidays a success. There’s no reason it shouldn’t do the same for the elections.

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a staff writer for Time magazine.