Poly-Seal employees weigh health vs. paycheck Plant reduces operations as some workers stay home

October 08, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

A few minutes before 8 a.m. yesterday, Margaret Prescoe stared hard at the entrance to the Poly-Seal Corp. factory and asked herself if she dared walk inside and go to work.

For 23 years, Prescoe, a machine operator at the Southeast Baltimore plastics factory, had come to work without a second thought.

But last Thursday night, her friend and co-worker Joenell Fisher died from Legionnaires' disease.

And this week, Poly-Seal shut down a third of the plant and announced it was investigating whether Fisher and other employees had contracted the sometimes-fatal disease from contamination in the factory.

"I've never been more nervous coming to work. This is a choice between your work and your health," said Prescoe, 59, before walking inside.

"I'm afraid for my life, but I have to work because I need the money."

Yesterday, most of Poly-Seal's approximately 500 employees faced the same dilemma.

On Tuesday, the company shut down its east building -- where Fisher worked on lining for plastic caps -- and laid off the roughly 250 workers there.

Employees in the west building were given the choice of staying on the job or, if they felt the plant was no longer safe, taking a voluntary leave of absence.

Union officials and employees said that so few west building employees had reported to work by yesterday afternoon that company officials called dozens of east building employees, laid off only a day earlier, and asked them to return to work.

Some refused.

About 275 employees reported for work, said Robert Weilminster, vice president of finance and administration.

Those who ventured in said they had been encouraged by the openness of Poly-Seal executives about the outbreak.

Still, many workers said they had been badly shaken by the death of Fisher, a fit, petite 51-year-old factory worker and sometime singer known for belting out jazzy renditions of "I Will Survive" in Baltimore churches and clubs.

Fisher had seemed healthy as recently as two weeks ago.

"You don't know many people here, but everyone seemed to know her," said Cynthia Williams, 45, as she took long drags from a cigarette "to build up enough courage" to start her shift.

"They might be better off for now closing the whole plant down."

Inside the plant, the shortage of workers on the overnight and first shift meant making some adjustments.

Rather than producing plastics, some workers were "cleaning up, doing odd jobs that we ordinarily can't get to," said Michael Dillow, 40, of Rosedale.

Outside the plant, workers debated whether to go inside and clasped two-page handouts on Legionnaires' disease.

A handful of employees also held applications marked "Leave of Absence."

Some traded uninformed speculation on what might be the source of the water-borne disease. Several workers arrived carrying their own bottled water.

While worried, many workers said they couldn't afford to miss a paycheck.

Weilminster said the laid-off workers are not getting paid for now -- though the company might reconsider.

"I'd like to see them fix this before I get back," said Kevin Phillips, 35, a $10-an-hour materials handler who was laid off this week.

"But with what I make, I live week to week. If this thing goes past next Monday, I'll be hurt."

Some workers were left with difficult choices. Theresa Stern and her mother, Catherine Combs, are being treated by doctors for symptoms associated with Legionnaires'. Both were laid off, and they jumped at calls yesterday from the company asking them to return to work.

Combs said even a few days of missed pay could cause her to fall behind on her mortgage.

And Stern said that if she missed more than a few days, she would have to skimp on groceries. "This whole thing is really messed up," she said.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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