Postal workers in terrorist's sights; two die in D.C.

The nation's 800,000 postal workers found themselves in the crosshairs of a new kind of terrorism in October when anthrax-filled letters were sent through the mail system.

Two postal clerks died and two more clerks and a letter carrier were made critically ill, while dozens more were found to have been exposed to the disease and thousands were taking antibiotics.

Although the letters were dated Sept. 11, the day of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., federal authorities did not know whether they were sent by the Osama bin Laden terrorist organization or by a different group, or even just one individual with an unrelated agenda.

A special task force of officers of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), the Mailhandlers (a division of the Laborers Union) and the Rural Letter Carriers have been meeting daily with the postmaster general in efforts to work out safety procedures to protect the United States Postal Service (USPS) workforce against hazardous biological and chemical materials.

Federal authorities came under heavy criticism from rank-and-file postal workers, especially in the Washington, D.C,. area, where the two inhalation anthrax deaths occurred.

The government had responded swiftly and decisively when an aide to Senator Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, opened a letter containing anthrax. The office was quarantined, the Capitol's mail system was shut down, public tours were suspended, and 50 people were prescribed the antibiotic Cipro while they were tested for anthrax exposure.

But while authorities knew that day that the letter had moved through the USPS's Brentwood mail processing center nearby, it took a week - and two deaths at the facility - before workers were tested for the disease or offered antibiotics.

USPS Senior Vice President Deborah Willhite, asked by reporters why postal workers had not been tested when the politicians and aides on Capitol Hill were, said her agency had followed the advice of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC, declared Willhite, said that testing would not be necessary "until there was an evidence chain that indicated there was anthrax present in the facility."

That evidence was provided by the deaths of two workers.

The two Brentwood deaths brought to three the number of anthrax-caused fatalities. The first occurred earlier in October, when a tabloid newspaper photo editor in Florida was infected by a letter delivered to his office. The first known Postal Service exposure was revealed Oct. 7, when a letter carrier in Trenton, N.J., came in contact with one or more of the anthrax-filled envelopes directed to Senator Daschle and several media figures in New York City. All the letters bore Trenton postmarks.

And while federal authorities don't see much of a chance for an anthrax outbreak in Oregon, postal union officials in Portland also have been frustrated by management's slow response to provide information to workers.

"When I first heard of the Florida case I thought, 'they're using the mail,' " Jim Cook, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Branch 82, told the Northwest Labor Press. "That was followed by warnings from President Bush and the FBI to be on high alert."

Branch 82 represents about 1,800 letter carriers in the Portland metropolitan area.

Cook said he contacted the USPS safety office Oct. 9 to inquire about precautions letter carriers should take. Two days later, after hearing no response, he called back and was told an official plan of action had yet to be approved. Cook said that as he tried to get information about anthrax distributed to letter carriers, private corporations provided their mail room staffs hazard-awareness trainings.

On Oct. 12, Cook received a fax explaining "safety standup information" procedures from USPS District Manager Dallas Keck. The first safety standup talk took place the next day, but most didn't happen until the following Monday, Oct. 15, while at the East Portland Branch a safety meeting wasn't conducted until Wednesday, Oct. 17, Cook said.

By that time Cook had already received calls from U.S. Representatives Darleene Hooley and Earl Blumenauer expressing concern for postal workers' safety. "Both offered to assist with communicating our concerns regarding postal management's delay to take the anthrax in the mail crisis more seriously," Cook said. "Congressional staff members had received training on precautions and procedure for handling suspicious letters and packages before we did."

"We realize this is a war, and right now we're at the front lines of that war. They have chosen to use the mail to terrorize the country," said Brian Dunn, president of Portland-based APWU Local 128, which represents 2,500 workers in the Portland area.

Dunn told the NW Labor Press that standup safety meetings ordered by the postmaster ranged in effectiveness from "laughable to informative. In my 16 1/2 years with the postal service, the last 15 as a union rep, never has management given any indication that we should have confidence in them. It's not going to change now."

Following the postal workers' deaths in Washington, D.C., the CDC closed the Brentwood facility, scoured for anthrax, and 3,000 workers and recent visitors there were offered Cipro. District of Columbia officials directed all 2,000 employees at the city's 36 neighborhood post offices to be offered the antibiotics well.

Reporting to his members, APWU Executive Vice President Bill Burrus said on the union's Website ( that the Postal Service has now agreed to test every employee who has possibly come in contact with anthrax and to close any work center or office found to be contaminated until it has been cleaned and declared safe.

Gloves will be provided to every employee who wants them, and protective masks to every employee for use in mail processing or in any function that handles the mail. More sophisticated masks will be provided to mail processors and other workers engaged in the mail-processing areas. The wearing of gloves and masks is strongly recommended, but not required.

The USPS purchased eight electron-beam systems designed to kill bacteria, including anthrax, at a cost of $40 million. Cook said the Portland Post Office is on the list for environmental testing within the next two months, but it is not earmarked for an electron-beam.

Meantime, Cook said union officials are now meeting twice a week with Postmaster Keck and district managers to discuss worker safety and other concerns - such as the downturn in mail volume since Sept. 11.

The Postal Service delivers 680 million pieces a day; 208 billion pieces of mail a year and represents an industry that drives American commerce.

Moreover, the contract between NALC and USPS expires Nov. 21.

November 2, 2001 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.