My turn: A vow to fix 'plywood palace'

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2007

No one should have to work under the conditions that have existed for some time at the Department of Labor & Workforce Development building - the so-called plywood palace.

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A recent story in the Juneau Empire addressed a class action grievance against the state by one of the labor unions representing state employees. The grievance, in my opinion, is about five or six years too late.

Department of Labor employees work in the building, but the Department of Administration is responsible for the condition of the building. I was appointed commissioner of the Department of Administration on Jan. 16.

I became aware of the situation at the Labor building around late April and began pursuing a remedy. But my department was heavily involved in the Public Employee's Retirement System and Teachers' Retirement System discussions in the Legislature, and I could not give the building my full attention at that time.

Department of Labor Commissioner Click Bishop and I walked through the facility on May 25 to observe the damage that I had read and heard about since late April. We talked with employees and were provided a comprehensive, no-holds- barred tour by Jeremy Dodson, a procurement specialist for the Department of Labor.

There are some serious issues with that building, and there have been since the building was erected. Windows falling out, carpenter ants, water running down walls and inside the building - these are accurate descriptions of conditions with which the employees have been dealing.

I believe complaints from previous years should have been more aggressively pursued by our department. There are many reasons why it didn't happen, and I can't change the past. What I can and have done, with Commissioner Bishop, is insist that these conditions be corrected.

The building owner is now embarking on long-overdue repairs with oversight by the departments of Labor and Administration. The health issue raised by the union with regard to the mold is a difficult challenge as there are many aggravating factors affecting a person's health, including whether or not the person smokes or has existing allergies. Frankly, it's not an exact science.

Samples of air are being taken weekly for air quality to ensure employees are working in a safe environment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and our own environmental professionals overseeing the repairs agree there isn't enough evidence to move employees at this time.

The work on the building will continue in a way that protects employees from harm, with proper environmental safeguards. Air quality monitoring and monitoring of mold levels will continue. Commissioner Bishop and I are working to ensure that employees receive accurate, current information about the repairs and air quality levels.

Commissioner Bishop and I want this situation resolved. It has not surfaced overnight, and it will take months for it to be settled. But we have been committed to fixing this since we became aware of the problems. Employees deserve better than these conditions.

I especially thank those closest to the situation: Becky Reiche in our leasing section, for her tenacity and follow-through in working with the building owner to get the necessary work started; and Dodson, who has been an ardent advocate for building repairs.

We look forward to a follow-up story on the resolution of the issues with the building.

• Annette Kreitzer is the commissioner for the Department of Administration in Juneau.

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