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Groups say mold in Juneau building is making workers sick

Alaska State Employees Association files class-action grievance against state

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2007

The Alaska State Employees Association filed a class-action grievance against the state over working conditions Thursday afternoon and the Alaska Public Employees Association plans to file one in the next few days.

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Forty-two of the Labor Department's 318 employees have been sickened from mold-based illness, said Angie Parker of the APEA.

State officials, however, say air samples don't indicate a problem. The findings are "not showing anything in the air to be of great concern," said Jeremy Dodson, procurement specialist for the Department of Labor.

A contentious meeting about workers' exposure to mold and ongoing air samples took place Thursday in the Department of Labor & Workforce Development Building at 1111 W. Eighth St. About 40 people, including staff from the Department of Labor and the Department of Administration and analysts from the Juneau-based engineering firm Carson Dorn, attended the meeting.

Employees and union staff contend that air samples are neither thorough nor conclusive.

"We want our employees to feel safe, and also to be free from allergins and toxins," Parker said. "They couldn't guarantee that it was a safe working environment. And they don't seem to be willing to relocate people or even to take appropriate safety precautions."

Kim Metcalfe, business agent with the ASEA, filed a grievance on behalf of at least 10 members.

"They are proceeding with the work and that's good," Metcalfe said. "It's taken a long time to get to that point. But we still have sick members in the building, and I want them out of there."

State agencies have worked in the three-story building since it opened in 1981. The first complaints about leaking windows were reported within a year.

The building's southeast wall was repaired in the early 1990s. The southwest side flooded in 2001 and 2002.

In the last two years, more and more people have reported health complaints to the unions and Department of Labor management, Parker said.

Carson Dorn, a Juneau engineering firm, was asked to monitor construction on the southeast side of the building and implement environmental controls for water intrusion.

As part of its visual inspection report, the firm conducted interior and exterior air samples.

"We want to know, and you want to know, are there mold spores that we're breathing?" said Tom Carson of Carson Dorn. "The idea is that in a normal, healthy building, the mold spores in the air will be lower than what you see outside in the air."

Bulk sampling showed elevated levels of yeasts and molds in Room 202B, where staff fell ill earlier this year. But the overall levels in the building were not unusual, said Steve Haavig, environmental professional with the firm.

Furthermore, Haavig said, with no regulatory limits for mold, it's difficult to gauge an acceptable standard for building conditions.

"It's very difficult to try to boil this down to certain numbers," he said. "What we're seeing is that the levels are lower than what's on the outside. So we're calling that normal."

"We're continuing the air monitoring on a weekly basis to make sure if anything changes, we can take the appropriate action," Dodson said.

"There are a lot of things that go into a building being declared sick, and right now, the evidence is not showing that's where we're at yet," he said.

The unions are concerned about the quality of the air testing. Parker wants analysts to look inside the walls and the ventilation system.

Minda Chamberlin, employment security analyst and ASEA steward, filed a complaint this February with Occupational Safety and Health.

"It is incredible how many people in that building are very sick on an ongoing basis," Chamberlin said. "When they get out of the building, when they go on vacation, they aren't.

"This is not hysteria," she said. "This is very, very valid."

"What we would like to see before any work goes on in the interior is that each unit be cleared out, and a vapor barrier, or an asbestos abatement, be put up to protect us."

Karin Epperson, unemployment insurance specialist II, believes it's time for the state to move employees to a new building.

"It is not common to work in a building where rain falls through the light fixture on to the people's desks," she said. "It is not normal that the sheet rock falls off the windowsills. It is not a normal environment that our eyes burn because of a urine smell.

"There are enough places in Juneau that are temporary, until this is opened up and samples are taken," she said. "If there is nothing, everybody (comes) back."

Unemployment quality control supervisor Clare Brooks said many employees were fearful of attending Thursday's meeting and being labeled "dissidents."

"This department has job classes that do not translate well to applying for jobs in other departments," Brooks said. "So people really value keeping their futures open to promotions."

"There isn't any reason for any part of management to view that negatively," replied Bill Endicott, administration services manager for the department. "The more information we have, the more analysis we're going to be able to make."

Kathy Messing, an unemployment insurance specialist, accumulated days of sick leave while working for 15 years at the State Office Building. Since she moved to the Department of Labor in 1991, she's been "sick almost the whole time."

Messing and the unemployment insurance staff used to work in Room 100, where wet conditions became unbearable in the fall of 2005.

Water was rolling in the windows, through light fixtures and pudding on the floor. File cabinets were rusting. "White-powdery stuff" was accumulating on papers. A co-worker's telephone shorted out.

That went on for more than a year, until the group was eventually moved to Room 101.

"People don't have enough money to go south to see a specialist because our health benefits are what they are," Messing said.

"There's lots of sickness here, but a lot of people are afraid of retribution from their supervisors," Messing said. "There are a lot of people that feel they won't get promoted, or they'll get blackballed. They'd rather be sick."

Courtney Hansen has worked in the building for nine years. She said she could taste chemicals on her tongue a few days ago while work was under way on the roof.

"I've sat in this building in 78 degree temperatures in my cubicle, dust, black fiber all over my desk," she said. "I have eczema on my face the last six months, major allergies the last couple of years.

"What I'm trying to say is it's hard enough to do my job every day when I'm not feeling very good. And all of a sudden, you guys are going to tear walls out and rot is going to be exposed? How is our air going to be clean and healthy?"

• Korry Keeker can be reached at 523-2268 or korry.keeker@juneauempire.com



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