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Local postal workers concerned about safety
By Patty Marsicano
Minnesota Public Radio
October 29, 2001

Twin Cities postal union leaders say their members aren't getting the support they need to deal with anthrax scares. The leaders met Monday with Sens. Mark Dayton and Paul Wellstone to air their concerns. They say they're concerned about safety procedures, and workers' ability to get tested for anthrax if they suspect they've been exposed.

The U.S. Postal Service has announced it will test the mail recovery center in St. Paul for anthrax this week. Postal Inspector John Callinan spoke to MPR's Lorna Benson. Listen to the interview.
(Image courtesy of U.S. Postal Service)

The union leaders for Twin Cities postal workers say they're frustrated. They say Postal Service management hasn't provided clear direction on testing suspicious mail. Jerry Siroir is with the American Postal Workers Union.

"If I were working today and I came in contact with a letter or parcel that was deemed to be suspicious, I would want to know that either that letter could be tested and found to be negative - or I could be tested and found to be negative. Right now there is no set procedure in place for that," says Siroir.

Another union leader says there can be inconsistencies in safety procedures when shifts change. He says some supervisors are more strict than others in following up on a spill or other problem.

Unions also say they're not confident their health is being protected if they suspect they've been exposed to anthrax. Brea Buettner processes mail at the Minneapolis main post office. She says last week she came down with flu-like symptoms. She says she had not come in contact with any suspicious looking mail. But she called for a medical appointment anyway because anthrax symptoms are similar to flu symptoms.

"I called up the triage nurse and it sounded as if she was reading off a screen," Buettner says. "Essentially, she said I couldn't get tested, so I hung up the phone and continued to be sick."

Buettner says the nurse told her the state Health Department was requiring people consult with that agency for anthrax testing. The Health Department says this isn't true. It says it has advised doctors to evaluate postal workers directly on a case-by-case basis.

So far, anthrax exposures have been limited to the East Coast. Union leader Jim Beaupre says local postal workers are concerned because some East Coast mail ends up in St. Paul. St. Paul workers process "undeliverable" mail from about 20 states, including New York and New Jersey. That's where some of the contaminated mail has been found.

Undeliverable mail can't be delivered to the address and doesn't have a viable return address. Mail without a return address can be a sign of suspicious activity. Beaupre says the mail recovery center is not being tested for anthrax.

"There seems right now to be a perceived indifference of postal management to what's going on. There'll be a plan on Monday, but then it'll change on Tuesday and change on Wednesday, so on and so forth. We need some consistency from postal management. Our employees need to know that they're important," says Beaupre.

Postal inspector John Callinan declined to specify what, if any, special procedures were being used at the St. Paul mail recovery center. He says any place where officials believe there's been contamination, testing is being done, sometimes discreetly.

Minneapolis Postmaster Rochelle Eastman acknowledges the amount of information on anthrax continues to grow. He says the Postal Service is trying to keep up with it, and keep employees informed.

"It's been a continuing battle to funnel through the information and update some of our procedures. We're trying to keep employees in the loop. Just about daily we're going over the new requirements, and yes - sometimes they're different than the requirements we had yesterday. It's becoming very confusing for many of us, but we're trying to get that all consolidated right now," says Eastman.

Sen. Wellstone made it clear to postal union leaders he would take their concerns back to Washington.

"What I think I'm gonna be saying is - in whatever ways you spend the money and additional resources by providing protection for the workforce, the workforce has to be included in the decision-making about the priorities and what needs to be done to protect people," Wellstone said.

Sen. Dayton expressed the same sentiment. A Senate committee meets Thursday to consider postal security legislation.

More Information
  • U.S. Postal Service