Monday, March 31, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Sure, the idea of work may sicken some. But what if work actually made you sick and forced you to stay home to recover?
That’s the united contention of county employees who have been working in the lower level of the Regional Justice Center. They say the stench wafting through the bottom of the building is much more than a nuisance.
They say the stink stings staffers’ eyes, reduces their energy levels and worsens allergies and colds. They’re frequently sickened, prompting them to go home early or miss full days — which depletes their allocations of sick days. And they worry the often overwhelming sewage odor will affect their long-term health.
They contend their supervisors and human resource specialists haven’t taken the matter seriously enough. Some staffers say supervisors have belittled them over their complaints — a charge administrators vehemently deny. At least, the employees say, it has reached the radar of their representation: the Service Employees International Union, Local 1107.
It’s the stink that links. The union has begun organizing those affected, and could ultimately take the matter to county commissioners and other elected officials if the employees continue to be exposed to the smell.
“There shouldn’t be anybody in that lower level,” said Frank Maldonado, who works in the district attorney’s office in the justice center’s lower level.
So far, a half-dozen of the 53 employees of the district attorney’s bad check and information technology departments have been relocated across the street from the justice center, but it’s unlikely the rest will be moved elsewhere. There just isn’t room among the county complexes downtown, said Terry Johnson, who manages administration for the district attorney’s office.
The Regional Justice Center was supposed to be the airy and ventilated alternative to the moldy and dank Bridger Building, the previous county courthouse.
But “employees who had been healthy in the old building now are often sick,” Maldonado said.
Yet, two tests conducted by consultants found the levels of hydrogen sulfide in the lower level safe. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration maintains that any level below 20,000 parts per billion of that gas is acceptable. The highest peak recorded by sensors has been 36 parts per billion, county officials said.
“I realize it’s uncomfortable even if it’s not unhealthy,” Johnson said.
The most recent smell test, which lasted seven days last summer, found a high of 14 parts per billion. That test cost $7,000.
The results were little consolation to county employees.
“You get into the office after a good night’s sleep feeling good, but quickly you’re sluggish,” Maldonado said. Kavyn Lighten, a senior financial office assistant in the bad check unit, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and “just can’t take” the smell. She says she misses about three days a month because of the smell, and has just four hours of sick time left. Lighten joined the district attorney’s office nine years ago.
Some staffers, including Damien Brodie, have sought workers’ compensation for the frequent stomach irritation and nausea, as well as the occasional dry heave and headache. But Brodie and all others have been rejected by health provider Sierra Nevada Administrators. Sierra maintains “the description of injury” does not meet state criteria.
“You feel powerless,” Brodie said.
All in a day’s work, eh?