USPS Pressured to Provide Water for All Mail Carriers

San Antonio Effort Comes Amid Pushback Against Softening of Protections for Outdoor Workers
A mail carrier in Dallas
A U.S. Postal Service mail carrier tries to stay cool under the shade of an umbrella as she walks her route along East Grand Avenue in Dallas June 20. (Elías Valverde II/Tribune Content Agency)

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WASHINGTON — Texas lawmakers prodded the U.S. Postal Service on Aug. 9 to provide bottled water to mail carriers in San Antonio, a long-standing practice the workers say stopped last month despite the extreme heat roasting the state.

A Dallas letter carrier, Eugene Gates Jr., collapsed on the job and died June 20 during a heat wave.

“This heat is particularly dangerous for letter carriers, who do not have air conditioning in their vehicles and therefore endure even higher temperatures in their vehicles than outdoors,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and San Antonio Postmaster Robert Carr.

They called on the Postal Service to create a plan to ensure letter carriers are permitted to take necessary breaks from the heat and have access to cold water — without having to pay out of pocket.

Kimetra Lewis, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers’ Lone Star Branch 132, said carriers’ access to bottled water and ice machines varies in the Dallas area.

Democratic Reps. Greg Casar of Austin, Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, and Henry Cuellar of Laredo signed the letter. So did Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-San Antonio).

The pushback coincides with a broader debate about government protections for outdoor workers forced to endure life-threatening temperatures.

Casar held a thirst strike in July to protest a new Texas law wiping out local requirements for mandatory water breaks. Proponents have touted the new law as a way of freeing businesses from onerous regulations, but critics say it endangers workers.

The Postal Service didn’t respond directly to the San Antonio complaints but said generally that carriers deliver the mail in a range of “temperatures and climatic conditions,” including the summer months.

“The safety of our employees is a top priority and the Postal Service has implemented a national Heat Illness Prevention Program (HIPP) for all employees,” the Postal Service said in a statement.

Safety Training

That program has mandatory heat-related safety training and materials that include awareness posters, daily messaging reminders and stickers in every vehicle identifying signs of heat-related illness.

Carriers are reminded to stay hydrated, take sufficient amounts of water with them and contact 911 if they experience symptoms of heat-related illness.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently sent another letter to DeJoy requesting air-conditioned vehicles in San Antonio because of the extreme heat. Just 34% of current Postal Service vehicles have air conditioning.

Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Dallas), helped lead a group of 15 House Democrats posing a series of questions to USPS about its labor practices after Gates, 66, died. His widow, Carla Gates, believes his death was related to the high heat, although the cause has not been officially determined.

He worked for the Postal Service for more than 35 years.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating Gates’ death. Carla Gates said the wait for answers has been frustrating.

Told about the reports of San Antonio carriers no longer being provided bottled water, she said the Postal Service should take extreme heat into account in crafting its policies.

“That’s just common sense, to make the conditions better for the workers,” she said.

The Postal Service reiterated its condolences in its statement Aug. 9.

“The Postal Service continues to be saddened by the loss of life suffered involving our Lakewood Letter Carrier, Eugene Gates Jr.,” the statement said. “Our thoughts remain with his family, friends and colleagues.”

Homer Hernandez, political director of the National Association of Letter Carriers Alamo Branch 421, said management in San Antonio was told to stop ordering bottled water and Gatorade on July 14.

“We, the letter carriers, work outside for about eight to 10 hours in the extreme heat. All we ask is [that USPS] continue to provide bottled water, and to stop intimidating and harassing letter carriers when taking rest breaks,” Hernandez said, according to a news release announcing the latest letter from members of Congress.


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The lawmakers wrote that extreme heat is endangering workers across the state and the country, with temperatures soaring over 100 degrees and a record number of heat exhaustion emergencies.

“Letter carriers provide an essential service to our community and do so with diligence and determination,” they wrote. “They deserve the resources that they need to do their job safely.”

The elimination of free bottled water for San Antonio postal workers seemed to run contrary to President Joe Biden’s stance at a July 27 White House event on extreme heat, when he criticized efforts to roll back mandatory water breaks.

“We should be protecting workers from hazardous conditions, and we will,” Biden said. “And those states where they do not, I’m going to be calling them out, where they refuse to protect these workers in this awful heat.”

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