Ordinary jobs, transformed by terror

From opening letters in N.Y.C. highrises to delivering mail in Portland, Ore., everyday tasks now require courage.

By Harry Bruinius, Seth Stern, and Frank Bures

Rachel Sussman has become well-accustomed to the workaday worries of her Manhattan job: Will the package she sent by messenger arrive on time? Is the copy machine working properly? What if the company network crashes when she needs to send an important e-mail ASAP?

Today, however, when danger lurks in an everyday task such as opening the piles of mail on her desk, work stress has become something much different.

Ms. Sussman is an assistant editor at a publishing company in Rockefeller Center, the same office complex in midtown Manhattan where an assistant to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw contracted the skin form of anthrax.

"The pile of mail produces a lot of anxiety, for obvious reasons," says Sussman. "It's hard. You hope that an event like this gives you perspective and makes you think of what's important - but you still get caught up in all the stupid things."

It is the small, tedious tasks that can make it a thankless job for administrative assistants, who represent one of the largest occupations in the US economy. They form the behind-the-scenes backbone of business, media, and government. Yet now, they find themselves among those at the forefront of the current bioterror scare.

Even beyond the power centers of New York and Washington, the old routines of many administrative assistants have become the first to be marked by the new symbols of self-protection: face masks and prophylactic gloves.

When Steven Cohn, a facilities assistant at a community college in Skokie, Ill., got his mail pack last week, he saw that the person who brought the mail was wearing gloves.

"I thought to myself, 'What am I going to do? Touch this mail after it was put on my desk after being delivered by a guy wearing protective gloves?' " says Mr. Cohn.

Staying calm in the midst of hectic, demanding days is a skill most administrative assistants have had to master. But even while the vast majority of assistants around the country are still more concerned with managing schedules and egos than the threat of anthrax, this struggle to maintain calm is perhaps most evident in those offices directly affected by anthrax-contaminated mail.

Kim Akhtar, the assistant to CBS news anchor Dan Rather, has been trying to take a low-key approach, even though she is literally in the middle of the attacks. Anthrax spores were found all over the carpet, computers, and desks of both her and Mr. Rather's offices after a contaminated letter was delivered. Rather's second assistant, Claire Fletcher, who worked next to Ms. Akhtar, was found to have the skin form of the disease.

"It's really important to be very levelheaded and to really just be cautious in what you do," says Akhtar. For the time being, all three are working together in a small, one-room office down the hall as their suite is torn apart, fumigated, recarpeted, and painted. "There's no sense in panicking, because if you panic, it always leads you to make decisions that are not necessarily the best ones."

- Harry Bruinius

Near the end of September, Shah Rohany stepped outside his Manhattan restaurant, Bamiyan. He wiped the word "Afghani" from the front window, collected the American flag vandals had ripped down seven times, and hung it carefully inside.

In the days immediately following the terrorist attacks, business dropped off 95 percent, Mr. Rohany says. Though it's recovered somewhat, he still has only about half the usual number of customers reclining on multicolored cushions to dine on his shish kebabs, tangy yogurt sauces, and pumpkin-and-meat-filled pastries.

"Business is very bad," says Rohany, a thin, gray-haired man with a mustache. While he's so far avoided laying off any employees, most of whom have worked for him for a dozen years, he says he can't last more than a few months if business doesn't improve.

Sitting in his Third Avenue restaurant, Rohany reminisced about the homeland he loves - but hasn't seen since 1978 - and spoke of his worry for his siblings, who still live in northern Afghanistan.

"I miss my country," says Rohany, who was an Afghan supreme court justice when he came to New York to visit his brother, a student at Columbia University, more than two decades ago. During his 10-day trip, Soviet troops invaded the country and overthrew the shah. Rohany, unable to safely return, traded in his judge's robes for a busboy's apron before eventually opening his own restaurant.

Although he has raised seven children in the New York area, neither Rohany nor his father, now 102, have gotten used to American cuisine.

Rohany speaks wistfully about Shor Ba soup, slow-cooked in wood-filled clay hearths, and the 25 varieties of grapes grown in the north. The produce just isn't as fresh here, he says, and not even the fanciest grocer sells the sweet lemons he ate as a child.

But while he reminisces about his family in Afghanistan gathering at mealtimes on a cotton and velvet rug spread on the ground, today, he says, they must wait for American peanut butter to fall from the sky.

Since they no longer have telephones, he also must wait, thousands of miles away, for word of their safety.

- Seth Stern

In 31 years of delivering the mail in Portland, Ore., Earl Keeton can't remember anything like this. The only thing that comes close, he says, was the explosion of Mt. St. Helens, when local letter carriers wore masks to protect them from breathing in ash.

The anthrax scare, though, has shaken the ground under his feet much harder - and though all exposures of postal workers have been on the other side of the continent, Mr. Keeton worries that his employer has been too cavalier in its worker-protection response.

"As far as the Postal Service management is concerned," he says, "we're pretty much on our own. They issued little masks and gloves and stuff, but they're mainly concerned about their image and their budget."

Within the ranks of the 240,000 letter carriers who deliver mail for the United States Postal Service (USPS), the anthrax attacks not only have aroused a high level of concern, but also are exacerbating a long-standing labor-management rift.

Nine of 17 people who have been diagnosed as having anthrax are postal workers - and two of those have died. Many in the USPS rank and file feel that a more urgent response by top officials might have prevented exposures from developing into illnesses.

Still, some on the union side are optimistic that the crisis can be turned to advantage - and actually help to mend relations. "It's fairly acrimonious," says Jim Williams, the Pacific Northwest representative for the National Association of Letter Carriers. "I will say, though, that with this threat, finally the service is including the unions at every level. So that's a good sign."

Neither does he believe the USPS management's delayed response to protect workers was related to troubled union-management relations. "I think the reason it took so long is that we got bum information from the people who were supposed to be the experts, and it's a huge organization. It's finally responding, but it's like trying to turn a tanker."

Indeed, the nation's letter carriers pick up and drop off 680 million pieces of mail every day. When Keeton brings mail back to the local hub, it is sorted (mostly by machine) and sent on to the hub nearest its destination. If mail needs to go more than 600 miles, it travels by plane. Otherwise, it goes by truck.

The USPS is a massive machine, employing 800,000 workers at 38,000 post offices. It handles 46 percent of the world's mail. With 210 billion pieces moved every year, it is far beyond what the Romans could have imagined when they established their Cursus Publicus to communicate with disparate parts of their empire.

But clogging that machine is a long history of mistrust between management and postal workers, says Gary Roche, who has been a letter carrier for 17 years. The anthrax deaths certainly haven't helped.

"They're saying that it takes someone dying to get any action," he says of his coworkers. "There've been a few instances in the last week," says Mr. Roche, "where we've brought things to management's attention that we thought were suspicious, and they pooh-poohed it and said, 'Go back to work.' "

But now, Roche says, people are comforted to see that management is finally taking the threats seriously.

- Frank Bures

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