Fedweek

Actions the Postal Service took at the outset of the pandemic “likely saved lives and certainly increased employee safety,” but both the agency and individual employees could have done more, an inspector general audit has said.

The report is one of the first thorough looks at how federal agencies responded to the pandemic and is likely to be followed by many more, since numerous IGs have said they are conducting such audits in response to a request from the House government operations subcommittee.

The IG credited the USPS with steps that were common across agencies such as requiring employees to wear face coverings where a state or local mandate was in place and social distancing couldn’t be achieved, requesting customers to do the same, more frequent cleaning of work areas, and establishment of a supplies center to monitor daily inventories of personal protective equipment. For employees, it allowed liberal use of leave, established a contact tracing program and set standards for returning to work after exposure.

However, it said that despite those efforts, out of a workforce of some 640,000, through July 31 nearly 34,000 took leave to quarantine, more than 7,400 tested positive and 80 had died. Latest figures from USPS show more than 17,000 infected but do not show a number of deaths.

It said that in reviews of more than 100 facilities conducted both on-site and through reviewing security camera recordings, it saw employees not wearing masks in conditions requiring them in four-tenths, including some working front counters. Managers meanwhile “voiced confusion with the policy” and “were not always aware they could enforce” it.

“The confusing face covering policy and its inconsistent enforcement put employees at higher risk of exposure” to the virus, it said.

Further, the contact tracing program “did not include an overarching program goal with associated metrics and did not ensure adequate staffing. Management indicated they did not establish goals for the contact tracing program because they did not believe contact tracing was measurable,” but such measures “are essential” to determine such a program’s effectiveness, the IG said.

It further said that the agency made only limited use of temperature screening to determine if employees were sick on arriving at work, due to privacy concerns, skepticism about its effectiveness, the need for coordination with unions, and the cost and complexity.

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