On Wednesday, Sept. 17, two plumbers from Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services were alerted to a leak in Sansom West.
They had started chasing another leak in the building on Sept. 1, and were hardly surprised to see it spread to an eighth floor room.
They arrived in the room to find water dripping from the wall connecting the sink and toilet in the bathroom. Huddled beneath the source of the leak, the plumbers discovered wiry strands of black mold with a bright, orange mushroom growing out of them.
Both plumbers immediately left the room.
"If I don't feel safe in that environment, I have to leave," said Lou, one of the plumbers who responded to the maintenance request. Of the ten FRES mechanics spoken to for this series of articles, only one agreed to use his real name. The other nine, including Lou, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more frankly about safety hazards in residence halls and dysfunction among their coworkers and bosses.
Though only ten employees were interviewed, some of them spoke on behalf of their individual department or division of workers, increasing the number of discontented workers within the organization.
After discovering the mushroom growing out of the wall, Lou and his coworker called their union official at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 835, who supported their decision to leave. Per the protocol for mold-related incidents, Lou and his coworker called an asbestos specialist from the Office of Environmental Health & Radiation Safety to evaluate the safety of the room.
That day, Lou shut off the water in the eighth floor room to help contain the leak. The student living there, who did not respond to repeated emails requesting comment and was not available during the time his room was visited, was moved to another room in Sansom West. The mold infestation, stemming from what Lou believes were maintenance problems beginning on Sept. 1, was not sanitized and removed until Sept. 23.
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In interviews with FRES employees, managers and students, as well as in work-related emails provided to The Daily Pennsylvanian, a pattern of inefficiency and waste due to internal dysfunction becomes startlingly evident.
Employees doubt the competence of management, resent the influence of contracted specialists and decry the waist-tightening budget controls that prevent improvements to shoddy infrastructure. The result is lengthy responses to student maintenance requests, larger expenses for Penn and an unhappy and recalcitrant staff.
Lou said the specialist informed him that the mold was not hazardous. Even when the room was cleared, Lou still doubted the specialist's expertise, given disputes with him on other jobs.
In an incident from last year that Lou recorded on his phone and shared with The Daily Pennsylvanian, the same specialist that cleared the room in September pointed to darkly-colored mold and said "I see nothing but dirt there." He then advised Lou and other plumbers to "cover up" the mold, rather than formally remove it.
Lou was unwilling to share the video publicly because it would have exposed his identity. It was later erased from his phone.
"I was frustrated with their bullshit and their lies putting my life in jeopardy," he said. "Their main concern is students? That's bogus."
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According to the Center for Disease Control, mold "does not always present a health problem indoors." However, "severe reactions may occur among workers exposed to large amounts of mold in occupational settings" — like maintenance workers.
Lou's reticence stems from having witnessed an incident in Sansom East where a residential manager allegedly got a rash on both of her arms after attempting to clean away a similar case of mold.
Mold has not been known to cause rashes, but the Institute of Medicine found in 2004 that exposure to it indoors can cause respiratory illness.
Because of his distrust of the specialist, Lou got into a heated argument with an area supervisor over the safety of touching the moldy drywall.
"There's a f**king mushroom growing out of it. I'm not touching it," he recalls telling his boss. "We almost got into fisticuffs."
Outside contractors were brought in by FRES to assist both the specialist from EHRS and the union plumbers with clearing the infestation, making three separate organizations all with different supervisors responsible for addressing the mold.
When not arguing with each other, the three groups usually just do not interact. Lou said his union does not allow him to coordinate with contractors, even though they occasionally work on the same jobs. The effect is a breakdown in communication and resentment for contracting practices the union workers describe as cheap and unsafe.
"They wiped [the moldy wall] with bleach — that wipes away all that black stuff, but what is still left inside of that drywall?" he said of the contractors' work. "It's coated with waste and mold."
FRES officials do not oversee EHRS officials directly, but said the use of bleach was standard practice.
"If EHRS decides that there are some things that are safe, you can just wash it down with bleach," said Vice President for FRES Anne Papageorge.
Leo, another FRES mechanic, told the DP about an incident he worked on with contractors on the first floor of McClelland Hall in Ware College House. A sewage pipe had backed up, spilling excrement all over the floor — as graphic photos on his phone confirmed.
In order to wash out the sewage, Leo said contractors hooked up a small hose to a nearby water fountain.
"If I were you, I would never drink from a water fountain here," he said.
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Contractors do not normally work on jobs alongside union employees. Generally, the job is assigned to one or the other, but in certain cases, as in the Sept. 17 mold infestation, a contractor will perform the carpentry needed while union workers will do plumbing.
The carpentry work had to be contracted out for this case because the union carpenters had a backlog of jobs, FRES Executive Director of Operations and Maintenance Ken Ogawa said.
Lou disagreed, claiming that contractors were brought in because they would obey the supervisors' orders to cut out the minimum amount of drywall, saving FRES money but potentially compromising the effectiveness of the mold removal.
"They won't send our carpenters because our carpenters will do it the right way," he said.
During the Sept. 17 job, Lou fought with his area manager over whether or not to remove more drywall from behind the toilet. His boss wanted to limit the drywall removed to just the patch where mold was originally seen. Lou wanted a greater portion of the wall taken out to better triangulate the source of the leak and to be especially sure that all signs of mold were gone.
Other maintenance workers agreed with this assessment. John, a FRES carpenter who has responded to similar leaks, said that contractors would take out only the parts of the wall that supervisors tell them to. Union carpenters annoy their supervisors by removing a greater portion of the wall than specified in order to ensure that any remnant of the mold has been removed.
"They cut out three feet of drywall, patched it, and that was it," Lou said of the contractors.
In this particular mold case, he believes that incomplete work by contractors was not only unsafe for other workers, but also prevented him from completely fixing the leak. Lou is now working on stopping another leak in the same room in Sansom West, which he believes stemmed from the leak that spurred the mold infestation in September.
Upon returning to the room this past week, he found that the drywall and insulation were soaking, nearly two months after he thought the leak had been stopped.
"If the drywall was removed, we may have seen that leak," he said.
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When it comes to the Sept. 17 mold infestation, FRES administrators tell a far different story.
The mold "wasn't a serious health risk," Ogawa said. No employee reported a rash or injury due to exposure to the mold, and it was cleared for work by the EHRS specialist.
Contractors were brought in to alleviate the overworked carpentry shop, not to ensure only minimum amounts of drywall were cut.
"If I were you, I would never drink from a water fountain here."
Contractors only helped on this case because the mold covered more than 10 square feet and required greater assistance, Ogawa said. The union can file a legal grievance to prevent FRES from using contractors for certain jobs, but if management can argue for a legitimate reason to contract work, they will.
And there is no love lost between management and union workers, as employees reiterated over the course of multiple interviews.
A FRES spokeswoman speculated to a DP editor on the phone that the entire reason for Lou and other employees to come forward was as a coordinated negotiating tactic by the union.
Papageorge, who oversees the five departments within FRES, including Operations and Maintenance, also spoke critically of union workers' "groupthink" mentality.
"People just want to perpetuate the old ideas and thoughts, rather than work together to improve things," she said.
Employees rejected the notion that they spoke to a newspaper on behalf of union negotiators, saying that their contract had been recently renewed with FRES.
The communication breakdown exacerbates the response time to maintenance issues, as various groups of workers under different protocols respond to different leaders. Union workers and contractors are technically both responsive to an area manager, but a union employee may occasionally override his supervisor's command, as in Lou and John's cases, and speak directly to their union liaison instead. Contractors are obedient mostly to the supervisors, workers say, but cannot coordinate with union employees.
What is the result of this dysfunction?
The mold infestation, stemming from a leak that was first identified on Sept. 1, was cleared on Sept. 23. And another leak in the same room, identified in the building on Nov. 2, still has not been solved.
"I put in a maintenance order for it this week," Lou said. "It should be done in a few days."
Dan Spinelli is a sophomore from North Wales, Pennsylvania majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. He is the City News Editor-elect of the Daily Pennsylvanian.
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