Sick Buildings Infect State Workers

Sherika Roberts really enjoys her job handling reemployment assistance benefits for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

“I feel that I am helping people build a better life for themselves and their family by overcoming the hurdles life throws at us,” said the eight-year employee and member of AFSCME Local 3037.

Unfortunately, Roberts’ work for the community has had to compete with her day-to-day struggle to stay healthy. That is because Roberts’ office building, along with those of other state workers, has become home to mold, stagnant air and various animals.

The most outrageous of these is in the Northwood Centre, a former mall converted into state offices and right across from where Roberts works. Problems there became so bad that state officials are moving workers out and cancelling the lease.

It’s not surprising that dozens of workers are suing the property manager over the environmental issues they had to work through. Just consider for a second that the secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation was not allowed into his office because there was 10 pounds of bat guano infecting the ceiling right over his head after breathing that office air for who knows how long.  

“They are moving people from that building over to here and other places around the city but we have problems in our building too,” said Roberts. She says that the building always has a foul smell in the air and that she and other employees regularly find animal droppings on their desks and on the carpet but are just told to wipe them off.

The day after the Northwood Centre made it into the news there was an immediate change in the cleaning procedure for her building and the pest control services were so intensive that multiple workers became ill and some even passed out.

According to Jone Sue, president of Local 3037, workplace health concerns are one of the items he hears about the most from members. An abuse hotline counselor for the Department of Children and Families, this 30-year veteran works at a state office building more than five miles away where Roberts does but experiences many of the same issues.

“Water leaking in through the roof, mold, recycled air so whenever anyone gets sick everyone else gets to breathe their germs is all part of the game,” said Mr. Sue about his office building, another location some of the Northwood Centre workers are also being moved to.

He said workers in buildings across the city have similar working condition issues.

Like many of his coworkers, Mr. Sue has followed his doctor’s advice and even worked proactively to equip his office with a humidifier, an air purifier and treatments such as a daily nasal rinse and antihistamine to try and keep his sick days to a minimum.

The Tallahassee Democrat’s editorial board agrees the state should move quickly to get workers out of Northwood Centre, but thinks that should just be a first step. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea if, first, DMS does a really thorough inspection of those new offices — including the attics — and if all agencies start listening to employees, when they complain about working conditions.”

And that is exactly what AFSCME Florida is working to do. Staff and leaders are collecting information about issues at buildings across the state and exploring options in the collective bargaining agreement and through legal channels to ensure that this situation is not considered solved just when workers are finally out of the Northwood Centre.

We have made clear that we want every building where state employees work to be reviewed for health and safety issues,” said Mr. Sue. “Just because your office is not in downtown Tallahassee doesn’t mean your health should be put at risk every day you go into to do your job.”