Concern over anthrax has landed the U.S. Postal Service in federal court. Frightened postal employees press want greater safety measures to protect against the potentially lethal bacterium.
The Miami office of the American Postal Workers' Union is accusing postal officials of brushing aside their concerns about anthrax and being too slow to protect workers. Wednesday, a federal judge heard the complaint.
The head of the local postal workers' union office, Judy Johnson, said workers want speedy arbitration to force the Postal Service to address workers' demands, including authorization to wear masks and gloves at all times while on the job. "We want to keep it as an expedited arbitration," she said. "What that means is that we can get in front of an arbitrator within a week. We can get an answer for a permit for the right to wear gloves, no matter what; the right to wear face masks, no matter what; and something for the forearms for [protection against] skin anthrax, no matter what. If a person works in a facility where anthrax is found, they get tested, no matter what. That there is no stall [in implementing measures]."
An assistant U.S. attorney representing the Postal Service told the judge that, at the national level, postal officials are meeting everyday to discuss and implement health safety measures. But a union attorney said working with local postal officials is difficult and compared the process to, as he put it, "herding cats."
U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz said she understands the union's concerns and even suggested the Postal Service form a special anthrax crisis management team. But the judge expressed hope that union and postal officials will be able to reach an accord without further use of the courts.
The anthrax scare began in Florida one month ago. Two of four fatalities blamed on anthrax thus far have been postal workers, both in the Washington area.