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Postal union accuses USPS of withholding information

(Published November 5, 2001)

By MYRLANDE DAVERMANN

Staff Writer

The president of the union that represents workers who were exposed to anthrax spores at the city’s main postal sorting facility says U.S. Postal Service officials "ignored the employees’ request and demands" for medical testing before workers began contracting the deadly bacterial infection.

Two workers at the postal facility on Brentwood Road NE, which also houses the city’s main post office, died from anthrax a few hours after local and federal health authorities on Oct. 21 went on television and radio stations to urgently advise the facility’s 2,100 workers to seek immediate prophylactic antibiotic treatment. At least two other Brentwood Road workers have contracted inhalation anthrax but are reportedly recovering in local hospitals.

Patricia Johnson, president of Local 140 of the American Postal Workers Union, said members of her union have "no faith in the management of the post office or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" due to the "disregard for employees’ concerns" that was shown in the face of a health crisis.

Johnson said many workers remain "terribly afraid" of their workplace, despite the government’s environmental testing of all local post offices, due to inadequate information being communicated from USPS officials to the workers.

"We might ask 50 questions and get three answers," she said.

Deborah Yackley, a spokesman for the postal service, said postal officials "were going strictly by what the Centers for Disease Control told us" when workers were initially told that testing for anthrax exposure was unnecessary.

Johnson, and other postal workers who turned out Oct. 29 at a town hall meeting sponsored by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, expressed similar concerns about allegedly "preferential" treatment shown toward congressional employees after a letter containing anthrax spores was opened Oct. 15 by an aide to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle.

"They responded immediately to those individuals on the Hill, they had administrative leave, shut the facility down," Johnson said. "Maybe if that had been the case at Brentwood, those two individuals (who died after inhaling anthrax) would have been alive. Had the CDC made the public aware, maybe somebody would have took the initiative to have the individual in the hospital with stomach pains tested (for anthrax before he died)."

Yackley said postal officials closed the Brentwood Road postal facility at noon on Oct. 21, as soon as they became aware there was "danger" present in the facility. She said officials are making special efforts to communicate with local workers in their workplace to make sure they have the information they need.

"Our employees are our most important asset," Yackley said.

In addition to the Brentwood Road postal facility, local officials last week closed the Southwest post office at 45 L St. SW and the Friendship post office on Wisconsin Avenue NW after traces of anthrax were discovered in those buildings.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator