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Home / Articles / Today / National Today /  After killings, return to workplace is difficult
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Monday, August 9,2010

After killings, return to workplace is difficult

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

HARTFORD, Conn. — As Hartford Distributors prepares to reopen this week, beer deliveryman David Zylberman isn't sure he wants to go back.

"I don't even know if I can handle working again," said the 54-year-old Vernon, Conn., resident. "I don't want to be behind (the wheel of) an 18-wheel trailer and start freaking out."

Recovering from an extreme episode of workplace violence — in this case, last week's mass murder of eight employees and the suicide of the killer, fellow employee Omar Thornton — isn't something most people ever face.

And experts say it is hard to predict how individual workers will react when they return to a place they now associate with fear, terror and loss. Business owners face the challenge of resuming normal operations while remaining sensitive to the grief and anxiety of employees.

"Going back to the site of where it happened is a trigger," said Mike Levinson, director of clinical services at Capitol Region Mental Health Center, which is run by the state. "People's response is not always predictable. Some will go back and not show visible effects and others will struggle."

Zylberman, a 34-year employee of Hartford Distributors, stood nearby as one of eight co-workers was shot dead by another employee who later turned the gun on himself. Zylberman has made an appointment for grief counseling made available to company employees.

In 1998, Levinson was among the first counselors to aid workers at the Connecticut Lottery Corp., then in Newington, after a disgruntled accountant killed four top executives — chasing one down in a parking lot.

Until last week's shootings at the beer distribution warehouse, the Lottery murders were the worst incident of workplace violence in state history.

Levinson led a team of counselors that, over six weeks, treated individual employees and groups of them. The toughest part came at the beginning, he said, as employees continually replayed the horror of the shootings and their flight into the woods behind the headquarters' building.

"In any office where all of a sudden you're running through the woods, falling into the mud, it is so far out of the realm of experience, you're not prepared for it," Levinson said.

A similar scene unfolded last week as warehouse employees scattered amid the gunshots in Manchester, some hiding behind stacks of beer cases or under desks. One woman called 911 on her cellphone from inside a storage closet.

Levinson said talking about what happened — individually with a counselor or in a group, or with family and friends — is probably the best way to work through the trauma.

"Rather than going out and getting bombed, better to sit and talk with people about it," Levinson said.

Workplace homicide has come to seem freakishly commonplace — it has happened at least three times in Connecticut in the past 15 months. It isn't always one employee killing another. Sometimes, the perpetrator walks in off the street.

That's what happened at the Red & Black Cafe in Middletown on May 6, 2009, when Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich, a part-time employee, was shot and killed by an out-of-town acquaintance as she stood by the cash register. Stephen P. Morgan, a former Navy petty officer from Massachusetts, has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial.

Since Tuesday's massacre at Hartford Distributors, cafe co-owner Ed Thorndike, who was not present at the moment of Justin-Jinich's shooting, has listened as others try to fathom the latest tragic event.

"(They say) 'Oh, my god, can you imagine that?' " he said in an interview at the cafe. "Well, yes, I can."

Thorndike does not like talking about Justin-Jinich's death and turned down previous interview requests. After the Manchester disaster, he agreed to discuss his experience in the context of rehabilitating a workplace marred by brutality.

Regarding the cafe itself, the most fundamental question was whether and when to reopen. The surviving full-time staff wanted to get back to work quickly, according to Thorndike, who viewed this as a show of loyalty and a determination not to be victimized further. (All four full-time employees remain with Red & Black today, he said.) But the group decided to wait.

"It was still too fresh for anyone to really make that decision," Thorndike said. "Given the gravity of the situation, it just didn't make sense."

Within a couple of weeks, after consulting Wesleyan, which owns the building where the cafe and a bookstore operate, they decided to remain closed through the summer and reopen in the fall, after renovating the cafe space.

It's not just our livelihood," Thorndike said. "It's the livelihood of our staff. This is where they worked. They've already experienced something so horrific, and they shouldn't be further penalized by losing their jobs as well."

How businesses deal with the work space after killings varies widely.

In 1984, when a gunman killed 21 people at a McDonald's in San Diego, the fast-food giant closed and demolished the building.

In Connecticut, after the shootings at the Lottery, the area where the killings took place was sealed off. A few months later, the headquarters was moved to New Britain.

Hartford Distributors may be faced with a tougher task. The violence was spread throughout the entire warehouse and offices as well as the grounds

"Reminders of the situation will be visible for a long time; even if there is remodeling, it will be a reminder," Steve Albrecht, a consultant on violence prevention in the workplace, said. "Even a backfire in the warehouse will be a reminder."

Once they return, possibly later this week, employees may cope as a group.

"It's 'We will persevere and not let this guy shut down the business,' " Albrecht said.

Managers must face the challenge of moving forward with the business, but being sensitive to how quickly employees can regain their psychological footing, Albrecht said.

"The trade-off for owners is not to rush back to work, but to respect what happened here," Albrecht said.

At the Red & Black Cafe, plans were made to remodel the cafe, an expense borne mainly by Wesleyan, as both a workplace and a retail store open to the public. Altering the physical environment was intended to spare employees and regular customers from daily "(reliving) everything exactly the way they saw it."

The seating area was reconfigured, booths replaced some tables and chairs, and the cash register has been moved from its spot on the day Justin-Jinich fell.

Not that anyone at Red & Black has forgotten what happened, or wanted to forget the person most grievously injured by it.

Some of Justin-Jinich's closest friends presented the cafe with a flag from her room at school. It's in the colors of the rainbow and it blares one word, in Italian, "PACE," for peace. Now it hangs on the wall behind the counter at Red & Black Cafe.

Levinson said going back to the original building can actually help the healing process.

"Being exposed to the place over and over again tends to lessen the impact," Levinson said. "If you don't go back that might not happen."

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(c) 2010, The Hartford Courant. Visit the Hartford Courant on the World Wide Web at http://www.courant.com/. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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