State Plans To Extend DoL Lease Despite Health Concerns

State Dept. of Labor building in Juneau. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.

The state is negotiating a new lease for the Department of Labor building in Juneau, even as employees who work there continue to suffer ill health effects.

Water damage, mold, and air quality issues have long plagued the structure, known as the Plywood Palace. But under the current lease terms, the state is limited in the improvements it can require the building’s absentee landlord to make.

The two parties have now engaged a mediator to help settle a dispute over the terms of the new lease, and repairs the owners will be required to make.

Jade Bickmore dreads going to work every day at the Department of Labor building. She likes her job, but hates the environment.

“Start out with sneezing, headaches, burning eyes, sinus pain and pressure, difficulty breathing, pressure on the chest, light-headedness, kind of almost a brain fog,” says Bickmore.

State Wage and Hour Investigator Mike Notar has had some symptoms, though he says not as bad as many of his co-workers. He says the building definitely seems to be the culprit.

“I had a co-worker who had to go home the other day. He was coughing violently and when he got home he called me and he said, ‘I’m not coughing anymore,’” Notar says.

And they’re not alone. Earlier this month, more than 40 members of the Alaska State Employees Association attended a union sponsored meeting for any worker who believes the building may be causing health problems. Supervisors, who spoke on background, report daily absenteeism rates around 20 percent for some divisions in the building. Bickmore, who also suffers from chronic sinus infections, says it got so bad that she and her co-workers in the Employment Security Technical Unit were moved to another part of the facility.

“A separate room that is on a separate air system,” Bickmore says. “So it’s certainly better there, but of course if you walk down the hall, get a drink of water, something like that, people are still affected just being in the building.”

State Chief Procurement Officer Vern Jones told lawmakers in a recent House Finance Subcommittee hearing that the state has entered into mediated negotiations with the Labor building’s private owners in hopes of forcing them to address any mold or air quality issues.

“The HVAC problems that some of the employees have reported – heating, ventilation, air conditioning – as well as there had been in the past organic growth, mold found in the building,” Jones testified. “We’re in negotiations with the owners to open up the walls, examine what’s there, and if there’s any mold or other substances that shouldn’t be there, to have them remediated and cleaned up.”

In an interview with KTOO, Jones declined to be more specific, citing a confidentiality agreement as part of the terms of the mediated negotiations. But he acknowledged the two sides are far apart on a number of issues.

“We’ve actually engaged a mediator to help bridge the gap and come to a mediated settlement for a lease extension,” Jones said.

Built in the early 1980s, the Labor building has been rapidly deteriorating in recent years. A water leak in 2005 prompted replacement of some carpet. A downspout burst in 2008, flooding part of the first floor. Continued complaints about water leakage eventually led the owners to re-side the exterior, which was completed in 2009.

But Jones says past lease terms did not allow the state to request specific improvements.

“The state’s leases generally have performance specifications in them,” he says. “So we describe how the building has to perform, the conditions that must be present in the building without really getting into design or technical details.”

Late last year, the state hired a consultant from Seattle to prepare a report on the conditions. The firm recommended inspection of the roof to determine the source of various leaks, opening walls to determine the nature of the organic growth seen throughout the facility, as well as air quality testing. The consultant noted several areas of cracked wallboard in the building, as well as a pungent odor in at least one room.

Building Operations Manager Bill Endicott, who led the consultant on the tour, declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in an e-mail that employee health and safety is “paramount.”

Juneau Republican Representative Cathy Munoz sponsored legislation three years ago that could have led to construction of a new state office complex in the Capital City for employees from the departments of Labor, Public Safety, and Fish and Game. The bill died in the Senate in 2010. Then last year, the Parnell administration announced it was scrapping plans for a new building, in favor of renovating the Fish and Game offices in Douglas. In her talks with the administration, Munoz says officials have committed to “major upgrades” to the Labor building.

“We need to deal with the problems in that building,” says Munoz. “There’s no question about that. That needs to happen.”

Long term, Juneau’s legislative delegation have said they’re not giving up on a new state office building, though it will be significantly scaled-down from the original proposal.

Labor Department employee Jade Bickmore says a new building would be the best solution. But until then, the least the state can do is move the affected employees out of the Labor building while it investigates the cause of the health problems.

“As they’re trying to get into the walls, maybe look at the air handling system, take the people that are affected out of the building, so they’re not having to be in the building while the work is being done,” Bickmore says.

State Chief Procurement Officer Vern Jones says Labor Department officials tell him they would move employees around within the building during remediation and make an effort to seal off the areas that are under construction. Jones expects the mediated negotiations with the building’s owners to be complete before the current lease expires at the end of June. He declined to say how long the state is seeking to extend the agreement.

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