Sacramento Business Journal – September 26, 2008
Wendy Schroeder began working at the California State Board of Equalization headquarters on April 1, 1996 — April Fool’s Day. It was no laughing matter.
She’s been on disability leave since March. Now, recovering from sinus and tear-duct surgery, she says toxic mold and other hazardous substances in the building made her sick. Even working on files that have been stored in the building makes her break out in a rash.
Although state officials took steps last month to relocate dozens more workers to new offices, more than 2,300 people still work at BOE headquarters at 450 N St. in downtown Sacramento, despite overcrowded conditions and ongoing problems with water damage and mold. The problems raise questions about whether staying in the building over the long term is viable as costs climb.
“(That’s) my question daily,” said Bill Leonard, a Republican who served in the state Legislature for 24 years before he was first elected to the board in 2002. “If we weren’t in a budget crisis, I’d be looking for a legislative sponsor to buy us a new campus.”
Management has already closed three floors, six break/conference rooms and a security station in the lobby for cleanup. More than 50 square feet of “visible mold growth” was discovered on three walls of an elevator shaft last month, a consultant’s report shows.
Legal action has mushroomed, from a lawsuit filed in February on behalf of 23 workers to a total of 40 plaintiffs in three cases today. At least 57 new workers’ compensation claims have been filed, BOE said in August, though the dates weren’t specified.
The building, designed to hold no more than 2,200 people, is overcrowded even though 121 workers were moved out this year and 50 are slated to move to West Sacramento by the end of the month.
Faced with these issues, the board has approved a management request for $9.6 million in new funding in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 for space needs and ongoing repairs. Board members also approved a stop-gap plan last month to move 520 employees to space outside the headquarters while a long-term plan is developed.
“The mental, physical and emotional health and safety of BOE employees is our primary concern,” states an internal executive memo issued last month. “BOE is diverting significant resources to protect our employees, which causes a large drain on BOE’s resources and productivity.”
BOE has spent about $3 million so far on consultants and expenses, agency spokeswoman Anita Gore said. The Department of General Services, which manages the state-owned building and is in charge of fixing it, has spent $16.3 million.
Some say it’s time the state cuts its losses.
Workers angry, scared
Three-quarters of the 164 employees who attended group meetings this year on mold and other problems at the headquarters cited health problems they felt were related to something in the building. Symptoms reported included headaches, itchy eyes, sinus and lung problems, skin lesions, difficulty concentrating and one case of cancer.
Symptoms seemed to increase with longer exposure. Files removed from exposed floors of the building and opened elsewhere prompted a return of physical problems.
“Overall, employees indicated a lack of confidence that the problem is being addressed adequately,” facilitator Karen Howell wrote in her final report. “In addition to physical ailments, employees overwhelmingly reported feeling angry, stressed, depressed and frightened.”
Schroeder, 45, used to work on the now-closed 24th floor. She sat on plastic because her chair was wet from leaks in the ceiling, she said this week. Co-workers dubbed a plastic chute installed to channel the water “Wendy’s waterfall.”
Off work on disability, she worries about her friends who remain on the job.
“Every time they go in the elevator, into the break room or the bathroom, they’re exposed,” she said. “Who knows what the long-term effects will be?”
Schroeder was a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in February and also has filed a worker’s comp claim.
“This building is very unsafe … yet people continue to work there,” said Anthony Perez, a Sacramento attorney who filed the February lawsuit for 23 plaintiffs and another in July on behalf of eight more. “Remediation and analysis is going on with people in there. It needs to be evacuated.”
A third lawsuit was filed by a Los Angeles firm in June on behalf of nine other workers. “It’s sad that BOE has permitted employees to work in an environment with toxic mold and other problems,” said Anthony Patchett, one of the lawyers on that case.
Plaintiffs allege management fraudulently concealed the dangerous condition of the property for years. They demand medical expenses, compensatory damages for lost wages and other employment benefits, punitive damages, legal fees and court costs. The lawsuits name BOE and its executive director, the state and DGS as defendants.
The state negotiated out-of-court settlements with the architects and builder in 2000, according to court documents.
Gore said she can’t talk about pending litigation or workers’ comp claims. A Web site has been set up to provide updates about work on the building, notices of employee meetings and other information, she said.
Court documents filed on behalf of DGS allege that employees were informed about damage to the building and that the plaintiffs’ own actions contributed to any damages they might have suffered.
Spokesman Jeffrey Young declined comment on the lawsuit but said the condition of the building is a top priority at DGS. “This is a big deal for us.”
DGS spent $13 million on exterior windows this year and $3.3 million more on cleanup and repair on the three closed floors, break rooms and in the lobby, Young said. Most of that work is done or close to it, he said, though the discovery of mold in the elevator shafts means more work to come.
Numerous air quality tests conducted so far have shown no remarkable results, Young said.
“From our point of view, with remediation, the building is occupiable,” he added. “We’re doing everything we can to take care of any issues we discover — and we are working hard to discover them.”
The $9.6 million approved by BOE would be spent on six new positions to enable the agency to deal with overcrowding and health problems at the headquarters.
Some of the options under consideration are to:
• Remain in the current headquarters while DGS continues to investigate and make necessary repairs, but relocate staff in excess of 2,200 workers
• Permanently relocate all staff to a single-site headquarters other than 450 N St.
• Permanently relocate all staff to multiple decentralized locations, or
• Permanently relocate all staff to a complex of buildings that would comprise a new headquarters campus.
“My preference is to acknowledge that our building is actually several hundred people overcrowded today,” Leonard said. “Not quite as bad as state prisons, but we are overcrowded.”
“I’d just as soon get out of the building,” he added. “I don’t believe it’s a current health hazard — with the caveat that there’s always somebody who is allergic to something — but I want to do something right on the rehab, not have employees moving their desks around while we tear out ceilings and carpet.”
Bobbi Smith, a district council president for Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents some workers in the building, wants workers out now.
“It’s been a construction zone for a couple of years,” she said. “The feeling of most of the employees in the building is, ‘Get us out of here.’ ”
California State Board of Equalization, by the numbers
– 1993: Opening date for 24-story headquarters building at 450 N St., Sacramento
– 2,200 workers: Designed capacity of building; now has 2,300, and headquarters staff is projected to grow to 2,650 by 2011
– 1995: First written report of water damage from rain and wind, blamed on construction defects
– Late 1990s: Employees begin complaining about health problems
– 121: Employees moved this year from 450 N St. to offices at the Franchise Tax Board
– 50: Additional employees moving to warehouse space in West Sacramento this month
– 57: New workers’ comp claims filed by BOE employees
– 40: Plaintiffs in three pending lawsuits over building conditions
– $3.9 million: New funding approved for fiscal 2009-2010 to address space needs and problems with the building; the figure rises to $5.7 million for 2010-2011