Each year, the staff members of Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services attend a mandatory meeting (a "forced audience," as one employee calls it) in Houston Hall with Anne Papageorge, the vice president for FRES.

"It's a dog-and-pony show, because they get up there and tell us how good everyone's doing," said Jim, a FRES mechanic with decades of experiences in handling air ventilation units and air conditioners.

For the ten FRES workers interviewed by The Daily Pennsylvanian, the meeting with Papageorge epitomizes their perception of management: purveyors of cheap platitudes that skimp on essential equipment and infrastructure to help Penn's bottom line.

Promotions based on favoritism and kickbacks produce managers without substantive knowledge of mechanics, employees said. As many of them reiterated: Papageorge's background is in landscaping, not maintenance.

Employees skip the chain of command to speak to upper-management directly in defiance of their immediate supervisors, whom they decry as too young, inexperienced and uneducated on mechanical matters. Deferring maintenance problems or outsourcing them to contractors enrages mechanics, who said they preferred working overtime to contain a problem before it worsened.

The resentment produces distrust, cynicism and miscommunication.

"No matter what we tell them, they think we're lying," said Mike Patruno, a FRES mechanic currently on leave for medical reasons, who like Jim, has decades of experience at Penn.

The institutional dysfunction contributes to weakened employee morale and longer response times for student maintenance requests as employees and managers wrangle over appropriate response measures.

* * *

Jim leads a six-man team in responding to maintenance problems with air conditioners or air handlers, the central ventilation unit that distributes air throughout a building. His team is on-call for any air filtration problems in Penn residential buildings. In recent years, he said, their working conditions amid deteriorating infrastructure have become increasingly unsafe and inefficient.

"If you open some of these air handlers up — we've been downsized and downgraded so much," he said. "We have one filter guy who changes the filters and air handlers, and some of these air handlers are in precarious locations like mechanical rooms, away where if something happened to that guy, nobody would find him for a week until he started to smell."

Wherever employee resentment ends — whether it be at anger over a frustrating bureaucracy or increasing reliance on contractors — it begins with the workers' immediate concern: unsafe working conditions.

Some residence halls have infrastructure so shoddy, Jim is surprised air manages to even filter out into the building.

"In Stouffer, those units up top are so old and obsolete. They're disgusting. When you open them up, it's covered in mold," Jim said.

His team can barely even vacuum or clean out the units, because they're so old and worn out.

"You can't spray it down and soak it. So we've been telling the area managers for years, this building is the worst. We need to get something done. And it's like the area managers don't even care," he said.

When asked specifically about the conditions of air handlers in Stouffer, FRES Executive Director of Operations & Maintenance Ken Ogawa deferred comment to Penn Residential Services. When contacted by the DP, a residential services administrator deferred comment to a separate spokeswoman for Penn Business Services, who directed requests for comment back to FRES, writing in an email, "Maintenance of the College Houses is done by FRES."

In a later meeting, Papageorge deferred comment on the same question about mechanical room conditions in Stouffer to representatives from Penn Business Services, who then agreed to an interview.

In that interview, Executive Director of Penn Business Services Doug Berger said, "That's the purview of [FRES] maintenance [staff]."

Ogawa followed up in an email later, writing "We have routinely inspected, cleaned and addressed safety deficiencies in coordination with EHRS (Environmental Health & Radiation Safety) and the building administrators."

* * *

Among the FRES workers interviewed, none expressed confidence in the competence of their area managers, the immediate supervisors that oversee groups of college houses.

One area supervisor was criticized by employees as inexperienced and unknowledgeable about actual maintenance work.

"He knows nothing about mechanical. He couldn't tell you if that is a lock [or not]," said Patruno.

This manager is in his mid-to-late 20s and was promoted over other mechanics with decades of experience, prompting strong resentment among FRES veterans.

The supervisor in question declined a request for comment through a FRES spokeswoman.

Ken Ogawa, the executive director of operations at FRES, agreed that many employees are disgruntled about changes in management.

"There's been a fair amount of turmoil within the leadership teams for a couple of years," he said.

Many managers, including the aforementioned area supervisor, are new and lack the respect of long-tenured staff.

"People don't like change," Ogawa said.

Papageorge said that there will always be some dissenting voices within a large and complex organization, but she and her leadership team are working hard to build bridges between management and workers.

"I expect that every staff member will speak up when they feel strongly about something," she said. "I can't read people's minds."

* * *

One area of special contention for FRES workers and their bosses involves the purchase of equipment in the summer. Managers continually obstruct or flat out reject the purchase of many crucial utility tools, employees said.

Jim said Mike Francis, a shift operations manager, ordered workers to buy materials "as they need it" instead of letting them purchase in bulk at the beginning of the summer.

"I don't know [Mike's] rationale — stupidity, laziness?" Jim said.

Francis declined a request for comment through a FRES spokeswoman.

According to Mike Patruno, Francis had a $5,000 budget that workers were not allowed to go over in the summer.

As detailed in a previous article, emails acquired by the DP do confirm Francis rejecting at least one important purchase by FRES workers in 2013: a cache of replacement parts for the hot water system in the high rises, though workers said he sanctioned the purchase months later.

"I expect that every staff member will speak up when they feel strongly about something," she said. "I can't read people's minds."

"We have 3 to 4 guys that go through 700 fan coil units, changing filters, making repairs and cleaning, vacuuming and sanitizing units," Jim said. "There's no time for maintenance in a 40-hour work week."

Without the parts the employees claim they need, their workload gets far too fast to handle themselves, requiring an extra expense for Penn: the hiring of independent contractors.

"The goal is to contract out as much as they can," Jim said. "In essence, they're sabotaging us."

* * *

Throughout multiple interviews, FRES administrators acknowledged the discontent among mechanics.

"I can't guarantee that all of the work I do on a leadership level filters down to them," Papageorge said.

She admitted that there are "people in our organization who perpetuate a labor-management culture," but said that one of her priorities as vice president was to ensure supervisors had the personal touch that comes with leadership, by way of conferences, training sessions and annual evaluations.

"We have tried to advance the skill level across the management side for the entire organization," she said.

Many employees remain deeply unsatisfied at the state of intrapersonal relations among FRES staff, the status of shoddy infrastructure within residential buildings, and the sense, in the end, that Penn and its administrative units just do not care about students.

"I'd like to be nonprofit like Penn. The things that they do and get away with are unbelievable," said Mike Patruno, the only mechanic in this series who felt comfortable using his real name. "[FRES] makes organized crime look like choir boys."


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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