Priority Mail

Postal workers rely on Internet message boards to sort out their fears and keep abreast of developments.

November 01, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

By now the image of postal workers as working-class heroes hangs enshrined in the gallery of noble yeomen alongside New York firefighters and World Trade Center rescue workers.

As silent paladins - brave soldiers - Postal Service employees have been characterized as the latest troops on the front line in a homeland war against terrorism.

But in fact, since anthrax threats turned grim, the silence among employees of the U.S. Postal Service has stemmed less from quiet courage than from "requests" at national headquarters not to talk to the media. Some clerks report they don't wear masks to protect themselves from the bacteria because they've been told masks will scare customers. And the mantle of heroism? As in other wars, there is the official story, and there is subtext.

For the last few weeks, as Postal Service officials soft-pedaled the anthrax threat, then struggled to quell public fears after two of its own workers died, volumes of subtext have piled up. In relative anonymity, post office employees have enjoyed uninhibited discussions on Internet bulletin boards. At a few solitary electronic sites, where those who serve the mail exchange mail, archived conversations among workers with pen names like Postal Pete and Pudgy and We've Been Duped left rich accounts of insiders who saw a runaway train coming their way, called for help and watched as Postal Service management bumbled and tragedy struck.

Most who posted still prefer to remain anonymous. Some believe they are contractually obligated not to talk to the press. Others say supervisors have instructed them to keep quiet. The Postal Service has, in fact, asked its employees not to speak to journalists. But, as a regular at one such site named Old Sarge wrote recently, "I was approached by The Baltimore Sun as some of you probably also were, and I told the reporter that he can get all he wants from this newsgroup. ... We speak our opinions here and what we say here is protected speech."

Listen in, they say. In these little microcosms, you will find them encouraging each other to quit whining, to protect themselves, to pray for customers and co-workers, to suck it up and move the mail. But there is also another story that unfolds, accounts typed in anonymous seclusion, rife with fear, frustration and mistrust.

Around 10 p.m. on Oct. 8, Tom Wakefield, owner of the Web site Postal Workers Online, got his first anthrax question from a dispatch clerk at a substation in Southeast Texas under the name double8. That day, after one death at American Media Inc., in Florida, health officials found anthrax bacteria in a 73-year-old mailroom employee at the same company.

double8: "How can you protect yourself from contracting anthrax through mail, as a carrier did in Florida? I know this sounds silly, but anything can happen, I guess."

Wakefield: "Did a letter carrier contract Anthrax? I heard that a supermarket tabloid worker died and his co-worker has tested positive."

double8: "I'm sorry, Tom, I had my story mixed up. It was a mailroom worker who got what they `assume to be' anthrax. He worked in the same building. But who's to say one of us couldn't contract it? It's a scary thought."

The next evening, Oct. 9, Wakefield heard on CNN the anthrax might have arrived by letter, and he suggested that all postal employees in the mail stream be checked. Again, double8 called for help:

"My postmaster made a brief announcement today to the carriers, but the clerks are just as susceptible to this. How do we protect ourselves? I'm to the point of wearing gloves every time I handle the mail, but how long can this go on? My job is to dispatch the mail, so I'm touching about a thousand letters a day, at least. We're really not getting any answers."

That day, a U.S. Postal inspector, Del Alvarez, made a public statement that would become de rigueur in official circles: There was no evidence anthrax had entered the mailroom at American Media in a letter or package; no chemical or biological agent sent through the mail had ever harmed anyone.

On Oct. 10, a second Internet site, postalnews.com, posted a story from The Tampa Tribune about a 61-year-old mail carrier named Patsy Hink. The carrier worried that terrorists could spread anthrax by contaminating the mail. "Maybe it's something we should have thought of," she said.

Postalnews members responded with dark humor.

My2cents : "The sad reality, it will take an outbreak of this deadly bacteria within the ranks of the Postal Service before they create a senate sub-committee to study the effects both short and long-term, then another year or so before they can present their findings to Congress. Oh, yeah, then maybe a posthumous certification to the grieving spouses. Must keep up the `Employee Satisfaction Survey.' "

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