Anthrax Problem Adds To U.S. Postal Service Woes

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - This week's deaths of two Washington D.C. postal workers led health officials to begin testing mail workers from all 36 post offices in D.C. and its surrounding suburbs. It's just another episode in a year of woes for the United States Postal Service.

Postal Service officials said mail volume was down 5 percent in September over the same period last year and revenue in the first three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was as much as $500 million below the forecast at the beginning of the year.

But the latest jolt to the Postal Service involves the deaths of the two mail workers in Washington. Postal workers at the Brentwood post office had been told to stay at work, that they did not need to wear protective clothing or take antibiotics, despite the fact that an anthrax-laced letter that ended up in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle prompted widespread testing of Senate employees.

According to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not believe that anthrax contained in a sealed envelope could infect postal workers.

"I would certainly hope that the people who work on Capitol Hill would not get any more special treatment over men and women who work in the postal service," said Vincent Sombrotto, who heads the National Association of Letter Carriers.

In an interview on NBC's Today show, Sombrotto said the best thinking last week was that anthrax spores could not escape from sealed letters. "They (health experts) were not sure, there were protocols that had to be followed and they were following those protocols," he said.

Last week, according to Sombrotto, America's front-line health officials believed that the risk of postal workers contracting anthrax was not high enough to justify treating them with Cipro, which carries side effects of its own.

Mark Wilson of the Heritage Foundation believes the deaths of the two postal workers could trigger lawsuits against the Postal Service.

"In any situation like this, there [is] always potential for lawsuits. A lawyer or two may compound a tragedy by adding lawsuits on top of it. If there was negligence here in some fashion, I am sure some industrious lawyer will pursue it in some fashion," Wilson said, adding, however that "It probably won't have any real impact on the Postal Service."

Judicial Watch, a public interest law firm said Tuesday it would offer its services to any postal workers affected by anthrax exposure or the relatives of the postal workers who died.

"Judicial Watch, will, in the public interest, offer to represent any postal worker, and/or their surviving family members, who wants to bring a legal action against the political elite for putting his or her life in jeopardy. This latest incident is outrageous, and appropriate government heads should roll," said Judicial Watch Chairman Larry Klayman.

The Postal Service was in a crisis mode even before last month's terrorist attacks.

Last April, the United States Comptroller General David Walker, testified before the House Government Reform Committee that the Postal Service was in the midst of a serious financial and operational crisis, which, absent legislative change, placed the Postal Service's ability to meet its universal service obligations at "high risk."

Walker's testimony prompted Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), a former chairman of the House Postal Service Subcommittee to introduce a bill to overhaul the Postal Service.

"Congress is fooling itself if it thinks that, with the growing cost pressures and shrinking revenue base of the Postal Service, the government can continue to delay addressing postal reform," McHugh said in a statement.

Despite its problems, the United States Postal Service will survive, according to Wilson of the Heritage Foundation.

"People are going continue to use the mail to send letters, cards and packages. It's service that isn't going to disappear. There will be a readjustment process for it. But people for the most part don't feel all that threatened by their mail. Most people aren't senators or congressmen or cabinet members or CEO's, so they don't view themselves as targets," Wilson said.

Wilson concluded, "People may be vigilant in looking at their mail before they open it up. For the most part, there may be a short term impact but no long term impact."

The United States Postal Service did not return repeated phone calls Tuesday seeking further comment.