Threat of anthrax real for postal workers

Originally appeared in Silent News, December 2001.

Never before have pieces of mail seemed so suspicious, so frightening. Once, letters and parcels were a welcome guest in anybody’s mailbox. Now, they’re regarded with caution. Offices are using gloves to open mail. Envelopes with no return addresses are triggers for alarm.

This, of course, is due to the anthrax scare of late. Anthrax, a form of bacteria that can be deadly if not treated immediately, has been found in seven postal facilities in New Jersey, and 17 people have been infected either by the inhaled form or the skin form. Letters received by NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and U.S. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota were both mailed from the same post office in New Jersey, along with several other letters: the Hamilton Township Post Office.

The Hamilton Post Office, located in a small town on a quiet highway outside of Trenton, serves as a processing center for 46 branches, and has 1,100 employees. At least 16 of these employees are deaf.

Communication, as seems to be the case in every major event or crisis in the society at large, has been a problem for the deaf postal workers. When the first case was found at Hamilton, the sudden presence of emergency vehicles and media trucks on Oct. 13 were confusing for some of the postal workers. John Munn, whose wife Jayne also works at Hamilton, said that he was working when he found out about the coworker that had been infected. “I didn’t know what was going on, so I asked other employees and was really scared.”

“I first learned about the anthrax incident from the news where it was first found in Florida,” Ron Arrigo of Trenton, N.J., said, “and then there was a meeting in my post office about the fact that the tainted mail actually went through our building.” There was no interpreter present at the Oct. 15 meeting, although a co-worker who knew some sign language helped fill the deaf employees in on the proceedings.  Another meeting was also held on Oct. 18, when the post office closed. No interpreter was provided, but again a co-worker wrote a few notes to Arrigo, who has worked for 18 years in the small parcel box sort department. “She wrote a few lines for a meeting that lasted 20 minutes.”

At a gathering of the Hamilton deaf postal workers on Nov. 10, 15 of the workers echoed each other’s frustrations and concerns to Silent News. According to the workers – who, on the average, have worked 15 years or more for the post office – an interpreter is rarely provided for daily interactions or emergency situations, although one is provided for their biweekly meetings.

Almost all of the workers were immediately put on Cipro, an antibiotic used when doctors are unsure of the effects of an infection. “We were all sent to the hospital to be put on the medication,” Flora Hill of East Windsor, N.J., said. “There was a long line and nobody really understood what was going on.”

“There was no interpreter provided at the hospital, either,” Arrigo said. One of the deaf workers, Helen Rojas, went to the hospital to be given Cipro, and was confused when she was denied the medication. Later, she found out that since she already was being treated with antibiotics for her cold, she didn’t need to be put on Cipro.

After seven days, each worker was then put on Doxycycline for eight weeks. Many of the workers said that they were surprised by the hefty side effects of Cipro, such as extreme nausea, diarrhea, and weakness.

Each worker was given one of several options: be transferred to another facility, using vacation time or sick leave, or leave without pay until further notification. Arrigo, who has a deaf wife and two deaf children, said, “I opted to take the leave without pay until I could decide what I should do. I don’t want to put my children at risk, nor do I want to put myself at risk.”

While a select few also opted for leave without pay, most are still working at different facilities. Shuttle buses are provided to those who are used to driving to Hamilton, and many workers are determined to not let the scare stop them. Ronald Chisolm of Bear, Del., works as a clerk. “I work in an office rather than out on the floor, so I’m not as much at risk as the others. Still, it’s very isolating because I am the only deaf [person] in my office – and often I am left out about what is going on.”

“Most of us are finding out updates, information and important details from TV, newspapers and the Internet,” added Hill.

“I am very disappointed about how they handled all this from the very beginning. They were very vague about the seriousness of this and kept us in the building without notifying us that the tainted letters actually went through the building and what danger it could be for us,” Arrigo said.

Apparently, the lack of information for deaf workers isn’t limited to Hamilton. A Washington Post story reported on Nov. 2 that 25 deaf employees at the Brentwood facility in Washington, D.C., were frustrated by the lack of notification and communication with supervisors and managers and demanded a meeting to be updated.

Elsewhere, deaf postal employees have reported the same lack of information. Dave Litman of St. Paul, Minn., said, “For me personally, it was not until one week after the initial service talk that I got any information pertaining to anthrax, and even then I had to request information.”  Tim Sisley of Glen Ellyn, Ill. said, “We were not notified until a few days later of the anthrax scare when we had an emergency meeting.”

However, Jeff Bowen, a city carrier in Prairie Village, Kan., said that there was a meeting called for all deaf workers at his facility. “There was also a videotape about anthrax and what we should do with it.”

Meanwhile, back at Hamilton, the deaf postal workers continue to wonder about their future. Jayne Munn said, “My 19-year-old daughter was really upset to learn that I was going to keep working. She was hysterical, crying and begged me not to work. But I have to work, it’s my living.”

The Hamilton facility continues to be closed until further cleaning and testing are completed. Makeshift mobile offices have been established in front of the building, with police presence.

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