SILER CITY — As a carrier technician with the United States Postal Service for 21 years, Stephen Suslik has had his fair share of experience with hazards postal workers know well: dogs on the loose and bad weather.
He’s been at the Siler City Post Office for two years, but before that he worked in Syracuse, New York, where he regularly shoveled and trudged through snow to deliver mail. Luckily, he’s only had to use the dog spray each worker is given “a handful of times” over the years, but the fear of seeing a dog taking a run at him is by far one of the worst parts of the job, he said.
At least, before last March. Now a new, bigger hazard is on Suslik’s mind as he works — COVID-19.
“It’s really on your mind every day now when you do the job,” he said. “Before you got in this routine, and everyone was just, you know, ‘Hey, there’s the mail carrier.’ Now, it’s like you stop, you hesitate, calculate a little bit more. It’s just weird situations that, before you never thought anything of it.”
Darin Shamberger, the postmaster at the Siler City office, said his office has prioritized having plenty of personal protective equipment for employees, as well as having frequent meetings to discuss safety protocol and any questions.
“Of course, at the Postal Service, safety is first for us to make sure our employees are safe in every aspect,” Shamberger said. “One thing about me — I’m a pastor also — is I have to set the example for others to follow. So what I have to do is just make sure that I’m doing everything possible to show them how to be safe.”
As COVID-19 restrictions in the state loosen, Shamberger said his office is continuing to emphasize vigilance. For carriers, this means distancing from customers, wearing masks when needed and sanitizing throughout the day.
In Chatham County, Siler City is the only post office location that has walking mail routes. Carriers don’t have to wear masks unless they come in contact with people on the job. Suslik, a city carrier technician, walks an average of eight to 10 miles a day, between the five different city routes he rotates doing. He wears his postal-regulated black, slip-resistant New Balance shoes every day on his routes, sometimes adding black rubbers over his shoes when the grass is wet or if it’s raining.
“We always take a shortcut if we can,” he said as he slipped between two houses to make his next delivery. And because Suslik takes so many shortcuts, he almost never drops mail off while driving — even when it’s snowing or pouring rain. That’s because the routes are difficult to change and actually end up taking longer since he’s limited to routes that stay on the road.
He works five days a week with one day off, in addition to Sundays, when the post office is closed. Every five weeks, he gets Friday, Saturday and Sunday off, and then works six days the next week. And every work day, he rotates between one of those five Siler City walking routes.
“I get to do a different route every day, which is very interesting,” he said. “It keeps me not too complacent. It’s pretty neat. I get to meet a lot more people.”
One of Suslik’s routes is the downtown route, which involves a lot of deliveries to businesses. Since the pandemic led to the temporary closure of many businesses to slow the spread of the virus, he said he’s seen a lot of change downtown. Some businesses are still closed, while most keep their doors permanently locked, meaning Suslik has to knock in order to make any mail or package deliveries. Plastic sheeting and plexiglass have popped up in most stores as well.
Since March, one of the biggest changes for Suslik has been not being able to walk up to people and have conversations while delivering mail like before. He doesn’t talk to most customers at all anymore, and if he does, it’s from behind a mask and more than 6 feet of distance. He’s also seen more children during the day because of remote learning, which sometimes makes for the extra challenge of avoiding children outside playing.
And because of COVID-19, the workload has increased at the post office. Shamberger said as the election approaches, as well as the holiday season, the mail volume will continue to increase — making the next few months busy for postal workers.
At the post office, Suslik said he’s felt very supported and protected by management — grabbing two masks and a couple pairs of gloves per day. The office has sanitation spray throughout the workspace, and Suslik has sanitizer with him when he’s out on routes as well.
Still, when he hears a person cough — even from far away — or someone answers the door before he’s gotten a chance to back off of their porch, he can’t help but think about the potential risk of being exposed to the virus. His mother-in-law, who is 78, lives with him and his wife.
“You definitely don’t want to bring it home, you know?” he said.
Suslik enjoys the weather in Chatham County — after 20 years working in snow and negative temperatures, he brags that he wears shorts on his N.C. routes more often than not — and his favorite part of every day is the time he’s outside and walking.
Every morning starts with an approximately 38-minute drive, from where he lives in Sanford, to be in the office at 7:30 a.m. Most days, he’s out of the office in his mail truck by 9 a.m. He takes a 30-minute lunch break and is typically done delivering around 4 p.m.
“My favorite part of the day would be getting out in the fresh air, being your own boss on the street and constantly feeling that, you know what, you’re serving the public,” Suslik said. “And a lot of times a lot of them want what you’re delivering. You do have a lot of people that you’re delivering stuff to — stimulus checks, their monthly checks, parcels ... they love getting their parcels. To see the kids out playing, you know, the fresh air, keeping healthy walking, moving, doing this — I feel that when I do retire someday, probably in 10 years or so, I’m gonna need to do something like golf.”
Shamberger said he hired Suslik two years ago because of all of his experience, and since then has not been disappointed.
“Steve is an excellent worker,” he said. “He does everything by the book. I don’t have to worry about him any time I’m checking on him. You know, as far as his performance, he’s spot on.”
He’ll have to retire one day, but for now, Suslik is happy to keep doing the work he’s loved doing over the last 20 years.
“I really do enjoy the job,” he said as he headed to the mail truck to drive to the next point on his route. “There’s nothing like it to be honest.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.