The "drip-drip-drip" sound of falling water was College sophomore Amanda Silberling's first hint that something was not right.
Silberling, then a freshman in a double room in the Chesnut hall of Ware College House, looked over to see a stream of water falling on her roommate's bed.
"It wasn't a thing and then one second later it was," she recalled. A pipe had frozen and burst behind the wall of her room, Silberling later learned.
She told her residential advisor about the leak, and the RA sent out a maintenance request. Then they waited. And waited. After three hours, mechanics from Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services finally arrived in her room.
"By the time maintenance came, half of our room was being flooded," Silberling said.
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‘Wait until tomorrow'
Nearly any FRES mechanic or manager will agree that responding to active leaks trumps most other maintenance problems.
However, the 10 employees interviewed referred to numerous examples where management specifically told them to "wait until tomorrow" to respond or to, in some cases, blatantly ignore leaks.
Jim, a FRES mechanic with decades of experience, said he was told to ignore a leak in Sansom East that occurred near the end of a workday.
"[FRES] didn't want anybody to stay to fix this thing and make the repair. So they said, ‘Let it go until tomorrow,'" he recalled.
FRES employees said the reason managers didn't want them to stay late was so they wouldn't have to be paid overtime.
Delaying response time to leaks allows them to intensify, as in Silberling's case, or dampen walls and insulation, creating fertile areas for mold. Sometimes, students have to move their belongings to another room to allow FRES mechanics time to clean and contain the leak.
Two students living in the room above Silberling were displaced, and she was moved into a single room in Fisher. She was told she would only be there for about a week; she didn't return to her original room until a month later.
"I was living in a hall with people I knew pretty well, then suddenly I didn't even know the people living around me," she recalled.
Other students affected by leaks were moved to the Sheraton Hotel near campus. College sophomores Taylor Daniel and Rive Cadwallader, who lived in Fisher-Hassenfeld College House last year, were displaced by a sewage leak last October.
"Water just started seeping through our ceiling," Cadwallader recalled. "I didn't really know what to do because I was in a rush."
Cadwallader and Daniel reported the initial leak the day it happened but never pressed the issue with FRES because the leak appeared to dry up. Only after water started gashing through their ceiling, and in other rooms on their floor, did FRES finally respond to their maintenance request.
Around 10 people on their floor and the floor above them were displaced by the leak, they recalled.
Administrators attribute the wait time to an overworked staff and backlog of requests, rather than any systemic aversion to paying overtime.
FRES Executive Director of Operations and Maintenance Ken Ogawa said there is a "significant backlog" of maintenance requests.
"It's an embarrassingly large amount," he added.
Though Ogawa didn't cite a specific number, a FRES spokeswoman said in a phone conversation with a Daily Pennsylvanian editor that there was a three-month backlog.
FRES has begun implementing a new program to speed up response time for work orders, and so far has seen a successful reduction.
According to statistics provided by FRES, plumbing orders — encompassing leaks, some of the most troublesome maintenance problems — averaged response times of 19 days in the 2011 fiscal year. This past fiscal year, the average response time was nine days.
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Mechanics believe the number could be even lower if managers prioritized leaks over other requests and let employees work overtime to address complaints.
FRES mechanics work a traditional 40-hour workweek based on an hourly wage. Jobs that require more intensive work, like leaks, may run past the end of the workday, requiring employees to work overtime. Managers avoid paying overtime, the employees said, instead urging them to defer maintenance issues.
"They prefer not paying us overtime to stay over to finish these jobs and to correct problems," Jim said.
Interviews with FRES administrators showed a divided, even contradictory point of view on the issue of overtime.
Ogawa said that the maintenance staff never defers maintenance issues because of a budgetary constraint.
"We're not not doing work because we don't have money," he said. But his boss offered a different response when asked the same question.
"We always have to manage our budget," Vice President for FRES Anne Papageorge said. "There are times where we say, ‘Yeah it doesn't need to be done on overtime. We'll do it on Monday.' "
She added, "We have pressure to keep our expenses reasonable."
The cost-cutting practice makes little sense to the mechanics, given that their overtime pay is the same as their hourly wage (not the traditional time-and-a-half) and deferring problems just creates more costs down the line if leaks worsen.
Another decried management tactic is prioritizing maintenance complaints, however small or insignificant, based on whether the students' parents call FRES about the issue.
"It has to go through the parent and then they'll really address it, and then they'll put priority on it," Lou, a FRES plumber said.
Ogawa disputed this characterization.
"Emergencies and a lot of imminent life safety issues are taken care of first," he said. "If a parent calls and says my door is squeaky, [and] it's a choice of doing that or taking the leak, clearly we do the leak first."
However, managers may prioritize requests of an equivalent nature if a parent complains.
"If everything is exactly the same, if a parent is screaming [about] your squeaky door and the parent of the kid down the hall isn't, we're likely to take your squeaky door first," Ogawa said.
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Financial toll for Penn,
mental toll for students
By deferring maintenance requests until they become unavoidable, FRES creates more expenses for itself by repairing walls, plaster and ceilings, funding hotel stays for displaced students and reimbursing students for damaged belongings.
Penn paid for Cadwallader and Daniel to stay in the Sheraton Hotel for a week, compensated Cadwallader for the cost of some damaged bedding and gave the girls gift baskets and chocolate ("Lots of chocolate," Daniel recalls) after they moved back to Fisher.
Silberling was also reimbursed for damaged items, and mechanics had to replace her entire wooden floor and parts of the ceiling and walls.
"There are times where we say, ‘Yeah it doesn't need to be done on overtime. We'll do it on Monday.'" -Vice President for FRES Anne Papageorge
FRES' "wait until tomorrow" mantra doesn't seem to have saved them money and has only angered displaced students.
"It's completely illogical that one of their arguments for not helping immediately is to save money," Silberling said. "None of that would have happened if they would have come into the room when we called."
Beyond more expenses for Penn, they also inconvenience students by having them undergo a time-consuming, bothersome and stressful moving process.
Silberling ended up dropping out of her writing seminar shortly after being displaced. Her professors were very accommodating and helpful, she said, but the stress of the early weeks of the spring semester, combined with her unstable housing situation, left her hardly at peace.
"I feel like the flood was a breaking point," she said.
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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