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The U.S. Postal Service Has Never Been More Important, or More Endangered

The agency was already facing tumbling mail volume, financial losses, and hostility from Washington. And then coronavirus hit.

A mail carrier on his run in Midtown Manhattan on April 4. 

A mail carrier on his run in Midtown Manhattan on April 4. 

Photographer: Christopher Gregory-Rivera for Businessweek

Jonathan Smith, president of the American Postal Workers Union’s New York Metro chapter, favors social media for communicating with his 5,000 members, who toil in post offices and sorting centers in the Bronx, Manhattan, and New Jersey. If you’d gone to the chapter’s Facebook page a year ago, you’d have found Smith in videos prodding them, often with gruff geniality, to attend the union’s rallies, sign up for its annual summer shindig, or be more appreciative of his efforts as their leader.

Early in the coronavirus crisis, the videos focused on reminding everyone to practice social distancing and wash their hands. By mid-March, Smith, who’s 51 and heavyset, with long dreadlocks, had become more impassioned, sometimes banging the table with both hands to underscore the urgency of his points. Some postal workers had tested positive. Several had died. Those still on the job were clamoring for protective gear, Smith railed, and the U.S. Postal Service wasn’t providing it.