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Workers at Labor Department continue to report health issues

Posted: February 12, 2012 - 1:11am
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Jade Bickmore, left, and Claudia Hoffman talk Friday about how working at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development building, commonly referred to as the Plywood Palace, has been making them sick because of black mold in the building.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Jade Bickmore, left, and Claudia Hoffman talk Friday about how working at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development building, commonly referred to as the Plywood Palace, has been making them sick because of black mold in the building.

Over the last five years, multiple health complaints from employees at the Department of Labor & Workforce Development building, nicknamed the Plywood Palace, have spurred mitigation efforts. Despite re-wrapping the 300-person building to mold removal, doctor visits, medications and employee relocation, some long-term workers are tired of feeling ill and are looking for a new place to work.

A group of about 50 Labor Department employees meet with union representatives from the Alaska State Employees Association and Alaska Public Employees Association on Feb. 1 to discuss mold remediation efforts that took place in December 2011 and ongoing issues in the building, according to a letter written by DOL Employee Jade Bickmore.

Bickmore, who works in the building, wrote she recently suffered “a severe allergic reaction that required me to take time off work to recover.” She is working with her doctors on treatment, but is worried continued exposure to the building could jeopardize its success.

Bickmore said she is upset the Legislature killed a bill that could have built a new state building on downtown Juneau’s waterfront — a potential new home for Dept. of Labor and Workforce Development employees.

As it stands, the state’s lease on the building is scheduled to expire at the end of June. There is no bill in the Legislature to build a state building. The landlord, Juneau 1 LLC, wants the state to sign a five-year lease before it will pay for much needed renovation of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC system. With the lease deadline looming and no state new state building in the near future, workers say they feel painted in a corner. Some say they have given up and are seeking employment elsewhere.

Now wrapped in a 5-year-old aluminum façade, the Plywood Palace has had several updates and repairs made in recent years to deal with leaks, glacial silt and mold. Some employees say the state’s and landlord’s efforts have failed to remedy their health problems which, they say, are caused by the building. Symptoms include red itchy eyes, tightness in the throat, difficulty breathing, headaches, confusion, memory loss, swollen glands, sinus infection, burning throat, chest pressure and others.

Effects to employee productivity

On top of the distraction of allergy symptoms, employees are absent on sick leave to convalesce or seek diagnosis and treatment in here and in Seattle. Employees have been moved off site while repairs where made. Groups of workers are moved from area to area inside the building as mold is found and encapsulated in plastic to avoid the release of spores.

While the symptoms employees feel have been identified and are being treated in many cases, the cause is still contested. If they have a specific opinion about the cause, the typical answer is black mold. Other explanations have varied from glacial silt, menopause to mass hysteria. Until the cause is found, employees keep calling in sick, taking medications they never took before to solve problems that arose within months to years and effect both their efficacy at work and their lives at home.

The Alaska Department of Administration contracted Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. to inspect the building’s exposed interior finishes. The inspector found cracks and water stains in the drywall inside the office space. The inspector did not test inside the walls and insulation.

The Fish Bowl conference room window had cracked drywall and portions of the window cove came unglued. The area is currently dry, however, the inspector peeled back the cove base to reveal “a dark colored material on the gypsum wallboard, which was thought to potentially be organic growth,” the report read, “thus a sample was removed for laboratory analysis.” The analysis corroborated the initial suspicion.

The report also found the building has leaks and that the vapor barrier is breached in areas.

“The lack of a continuous vapor retarder and missing cavity insulation could lead to condensation and potential organic growth within the wall cavity,” the Wiss Janney report states.

The three-story wood framed building was constructed in the early 1980s with a floor area of approximately 22,750 square feet, according to the report.

Whether the remediation efforts were finished fast enough or with sufficient efficacy depends on which interested party gives the answer — state, employee or landlord. All agree that employee health is the No. 1 issue.

The Division of General Services leases the Department of Labor Building for the state of Alaska.

“The paramount concern is the health and safety of the employees in the building,” Deputy Commissioner of Administration Mike Barnhill said. “Whether mold, or weather intrusion, rain or snow — that is a problem that needs to be rectified as soon a as possible,” Barnhill said.

“Any landlord has the legal obligation to provide a space that is fit to occupy.” Barnhill said.

Barnhill said he believes the issues were remedied as they arose in a timely manner. Though he said the building sports new paint and windows, some fixtures are not up to date, nor is the HVAC system, Barnhill said. And he said the state and building owners are in discussions on how to deal with the suspicion of mold within the interior wall cavity, though he cautioned that there is “still controversy as to the effects of mold within the voids of the interior wall.”

Juneau 1, LLC, owned by Arizona resident Patricia Blomfield, responded by email to inquires about the health of its building. Patrick Holmes spoke for Juneau 1. He said the company is committed to “ensuring a healthy work environment, and that ongoing air quality test show low spore counts.

Besides replacing siding, Holmes said, the company has made the building ADA compliant and installed a new roofing system. And, looking forward “we are currently working with the Division of General Services on a comprehensive plan for a complete interior renovation,” Holmes said.

Skepticism remains

While this could be good news for affected employees, there is still skepticism built up from being told before the problem was fixed.

Some have given up and decided to transition to a new workplace.

“It has come to my realization that they are not going to take care of us in a way that needs to be done,” said one Labor Department worker who wanted to stay anonymous due to a current search for new employment.

Labor employee Claudia Hoffman said her symptoms were like asthma.

“Like someone sitting on your chest,” she said.

What do they want? Most would be happy to be moved until the problem is properly fixed. All are skeptical that it can be done completely.

Donna Collins, education associate, has worked in the building for two years.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like for the people who have worked there longer,” Collins said in a phone interview.

Collins said her symptoms were not as bad as others though her eyes would itch, water and burn.

Then on Jan. 3 they opened up the ceiling and moved one of the tiles.

“I could feel every breath that I took,” Collins said. She was worried, she said. That day her neck and chest broke out in hives.

Since then she said she has had difficulty breathing, memory loss, nausea and light-headedness.

“And I’m tired all the time,” she said.

Collins and other Labor employees particularly avoid the Fish Bowl, so called because the meeting space and conference room is glassed and overlooks Gastineau Channel. Due to its purpose, the room sees lots of traffic.

The Plywood Palace Fish Bowl was also the site of the most recent mold remediation, discovered in November 2011 and cleaned during December.

“It’s absolutely beautiful, but it is awful,” Collins said of the Fish Bowl’s pleasant décor, oceanfront view and its effect on her co-workers.

At a recent meeting Collins said she looked around the room and saw people scratching their skin and rubbing eyes.

“It was pretty amazing,” she said.

Collins too was sickened.

“I’ve never felt like that before in my life,” Collins said. She said she felt light headed and found it hard to walk.

“I will not go back into that room,” she said.

Collins said she fears her memory has been affected. There are times, she said, where “I could stare at something and know what it is, but not know what to do with it. It’s embarrassing and it is scary”

Collins and others have described how their symptoms disappear when they leave the building.

“The thing of it is, when you leave the building you feel better,” Collins said.

Some feel the symptoms disappear in minutes to hours, some like Collins see their family life affected by weekends spent exhausted and “hung over” from a week of exposure to the building.

“My life is at a point where it is very difficult to live outside of work,” Collins said.

For those with more transient symptoms the upshot is that often when they take time off to see their doctor, by they time the get to the waiting room, many say their symptoms have subsided.

Collins said her direct management has taken the problem seriously.

“Our director has been working really hard and he cares,” Collins said.

Some suspect building of more serious hazards

The mood of the workers, the state and the building owners is one of suspicion. There are suspicions the building is connected with cases of cancer and fungal infections. Several employees at least believe the problem exists in the walls and ceilings. The state too has suspicion, “there has been suspicion that there is mold in other parts of the building,” Mike Barnhill, deputy commissioner at the Department of Administration said.

Martha Richardson, who is an Employment Security Analyst II for the DOL, worked in the building for 10 years. Over the last eight years, she said she has had severe respiratory problems.

“I’ve been working for 15 years and can count on one hand the times I’ve been sick,” Richardson said. “Now every time I walk in that building I am stuffed up sneezing.”

An allergist several employees went to for diagnosis said their symptoms were due to hysteria, Richardson said. However, she said she later found many were prescribed the same medications to alleviate the same symptoms.

Like many of the employees that interviewed, Richardson said at first she thought was the only one affected.

In her former jobs she’d been more active, and maybe the desk job at Labor was causing her to lose fitness.

“At first I thought I needed to move around more,” Richardson said. “You make up excuses for it,” she said. But then she learned that others were also affected.

Richardson said she would like the state to move affected employees out of the building until it is fixed. However, she said it is difficult getting permission to move.

She said, if moved, she would miss the camaraderie of her co-workers whom she greatly admires.

“I strive to be like some of the people I work with. They are a wonderful group of people," Richardson said, "who are constantly sick.”

The symptoms have taken a toll on the financial health of some employees as well, Richardson said.

“Some of these folks are single parents that have used up their leave trying to take care of their symptoms,” Richardson said. And even with insurance, medication can add up.

An employee who preferred to remain anonymous said he has submitted paperwork for disability pay several times without success.

Richardson said, strangely enough, her bout with breast cancer was minor compared to what she is going through.

“I knew what was going on with my body, I knew what was being done to fix me,” Richardson said. Now, no one can tell her what is going on. “It’s worrying,” she said.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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