New York — A union leader urged uneasy postal workers at a huge mail processing plant where machines have been contaminated with anthrax to seek transfers to other facilities. And an attorney for the union threaten to go to court if the government doesn't shut the building down.
"The conditions in here without a doubt are unsafe," local Union President William Smith told about three dozen workers at a rally Friday outside the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center.
The Postal Service insists there is no need to close the building. David Solomon, a regional vice president, said Friday that health professionals had assured the agency that cleaning the machinery was all that had to be done.
"If, in the future, the determination is made that the building should be closed, we'll do whatever the health professionals say that we should do," Solomon said.
The nine-story station covers two city blocks, employs about 5,000 people and handles all incoming and outgoing mail for Manhattan and the Bronx, about 20 million pieces a day.
Anthrax bacteria were detected Thursday on four optical ZIP code sorting machines in the center. The machines were cordoned off with bright orange tape, and Smith said Friday that the off-limits area on the third floor had been expanded to include 28 machines.
City Health Commissioner Neal Cohen said no New York postal workers have contracted any form of anthrax, but at least two of the city's four confirmed cases of skin anthrax are believed to stem from letters that likely passed through the Morgan facility. Two postal workers have died of the inhaled form of the disease in Washington, D.C.
Louis Nikolaidis, attorney for the New York Metro Area Postal Union, claimed that by accepting envelopes containing anthrax, the Postal Service was engaging in the transportation of hazardous waste without a permit.
In a notice of intent to sue, Nikolaidis told U.S. Postmaster General John Potter that he was open to negotiation. He said in an interview that his goal was to "close the facility, test the people, clean it up and send people back when it's safe."
He warned that he would take the case to federal court if the plant remained open.
Smith, who had urged his 5,500 members to stay home Friday, said later that the Postal Service had agreed to allow workers reluctant to enter the Morgan building to work elsewhere in the system without losing pay. He urged his members to do so but added that the Postal Service should go further.
"If it's possible to close down Congress and test there for bacteria, they should close down this building too," he said.
Postal Service spokesman Dan Quinn said Friday that absenteeism at the Morgan facility was no higher than the normal 6 percent to 7 percent. But one worker coming off a midnight-to 8:30 a.m. shift Friday morning said several colleagues didn't show up.
"There's a lot missing from all floors," said Keith Kirk, a machine clerk. "The crew that just came in looks like a skeleton crew."
He said he was trying not to think about anthrax.
"I try not to let it bother me," he said. "I just remember I'm coming here for the overtime."
Earlier in the week, the Postal Service made the antibiotic Cipro available to 7,000 workers at Morgan and five other postal facilities in New York.
Dr. Steven Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that the anthrax-tainted letters passed through the plant last month and there was no longer a realistic chance of mail becoming contaminated there.
Still, some workers, wearing gloves and masks, said they were concerned enough to ask for transfers.
"I fear for my life," mail sorter Jacqueline De LaCruz said. "We are not being reassured from management."
Four people--one each linked to NBC, the New York Post, CBS and ABC--have confirmed cases of cutaneous anthrax, which is far less dangerous than the inhaled form that has been found in cases elsewhere. There is one additional suspected case each at NBC and the Post.