"Be aware, there's rats": Workers in a state office building describe a constant pest infestation

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

The William P. Hobby Jr. State Office Building in Austin on April 26, 2019. The downtown building houses several small state agency offices.
The William P. Hobby Jr. State Office Building in Austin on April 26, 2019. The downtown building houses several small state agency offices.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

On Jan. 16, an employee at the Texas Department of Insurance noticed an unwelcome pest in her fifth-floor office in one of the towers of downtown Austin’s William P. Hobby Jr. State Office Building.

Her maintenance work order described the encounter: “Rat was in the ceiling and just poked his head out to look at an employee.”

It’s just one of hundreds of work orders that have been submitted to the Texas Facilities Commission, which functions as the property manager for many state buildings, by employees working in the Hobby Building between September 2010 and March 2019. The employees have requested services for rats, bugs and other pests, according to public records obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In one work order, ants were dropping from the ceiling onto an employee’s hands while she worked at her computer. In another, an employee put on a coat at the end of the day and a live rat jumped out of the pocket. Other work orders described cockroaches crawling across desks, in urinals and jumping out of desk drawers. Some employees reported being bitten by bugs while in the office. And employees often reported hearing rats moving around in the ceiling, sometimes shaking the ceiling tiles.

The three towers of the 35-year-old Hobby Building hold smaller state agencies that include the Texas Medical Board, the Texas Department of Insurance, the Texas State Board of Pharmacy and the Texas Board of Nursing, among others. This year, the Legislature is considering selling the building.

For the employees who work there, rat sightings are commonplace. Since September 2010, employees have reported and requested services to deal with rats close to every month of every year, records show. Services for roaches, ants and other bugs have been requested by employees at the same rate.

“The first thing I was told [when I was hired] was, ‘Be aware, there’s rats. Your food isn’t safe in the file cabinets, and be sure to keep your food in metal containers,’” said one state employee, who started working in the building in 2014 and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Last August, she said she put in a work order one morning after noticing a half-eaten sausage — which hadn’t come from anyone in the office — under a desk. A Texas Facilities Commission employee set a trap in the ceiling, which was left there during the weekend.

“The trap caught the rat over the weekend, but it bled out,” she said. “[When we came back] blood was running down the walls and onto the clock on the wall.”

She said run-ins with pests happen almost daily for employees in the building. In 2016, her office had a bedbug problem. When the Texas Facilities Commission renovated the elevators and HVAC system, it disturbed the rats, leading to more frequent sightings of rat droppings and causing nesting material to fall from the ceiling onto computers and desks. And she said pulling back shelves or cubicles in the office often means finding hidden rat runways covered in droppings and hair.

“Some people are not bothered by it at all. Some people joke about it. Some people are so disgusted by it they won’t even talk about it,” the employee said. “If you don’t laugh about it, you’ll cry … It’s gross, it’s a health hazard and it’s dangerous.”

Bringing in outside help

Because of the Facility Commission’s limited budget, there is only one full-time employee who handles monthly pest services for the Hobby Building and about 40 other Austin properties the commission manages.

Earlier this year, the commission inspected the Hobby Building and sealed and treated all of the cracks and gaps that could potentially allow pests to get inside. Normally, the building is serviced once per month and on a spot-treatment basis, said Francoise Luca, communications specialist at the Facilities Commission.

“Snap traps are used inside the building to trap rodents, and bait stations are used only in the parking garages,” Luca said in an email.

Luca said the building’s location near many restaurants and bars in downtown Austin creates “numerous challenges” for the maintenance team, but that she doesn’t think the building has a major problem with rats.

“I can understand that one rodent is one too many,” Luca said. “[But I would also] be concerned about the security system, and the fire protection system and the other systems. This building obviously is an older building, it sits in our downtown business district. It is not immune to any of the other problems that any of our other buildings experience.”

But employees in the building disagree. The state employee said that many were “so distrustful” of the Facilities Commission that employees in the building often do their own cleanups.

“It’s evident that people in the facilities commission and in charge of the Hobby Building don’t care. And if they do care, it’s a secret, because nobody can tell,” she said.

She’s taken measures into her own hands in recent years, removing all her personal items from her office and thoroughly wiping down her desk with Clorox wipes before work every day.

Hoping to sell

The building’s rat problem is just one of many deficiencies that lawmakers have pointed to as they seek to rid the state of the property this legislative session. Bills moving through both the House and Senate would allow the state to auction off the building. Lawmakers have consistently referred to the building as an “underperforming asset” that is too expensive to maintain.

“To use well chosen words, it’s an embarrassment,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, at a Senate Committee on Business and Commerce hearing earlier this month.

Watson authored one of those bills, Senate Bill 1349, which was voted out of the Senate earlier this month and now heads to the House for consideration.

Even if Watson’s legislation passes, it could take several years to sell the building, Watson said. He said some of the employees may be relocated to new buildings on the Capitol grounds, which will be created by the Capitol Complex construction project and are expected to begin occupancy in 2021, according to the project’s website.

Attention brought by the potential sale has prompted the Facilities Commission to contract with ABC Home & Commercial Services, a local pest control company, to provide “full pest and rodent eradication services” in the Hobby Building, Luca said.

Loren Smith, property manager for the building, said the contract with ABC helps the pest control services become more visible to the building’s employees. Smith said because the one full-time employee is split between so many properties, he often treats the building during the evening, going unseen by employees.

“The contract with ABC has assisted in helping us have more of a presence to allow us to show there’s more work done to eradicate the rodents in the buildings,” Smith said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that before we didn’t fully handle it, it’s just a larger impression of what’s happening.”

The state employee said her office has only experienced one pest incident since ABC began working in the building earlier this month.

Years of neglect

The Hobby Building is far from the only state facility with a pest problem. Last year, the state spent more than $20,000 fighting off mold that infiltrated state workers’ desks, chairs and keyboard hand rests in the Austin State Hospital 636 building. The year before that, that Texas Health and Human Services Commission spent $60,000 exterminating several hundred sewer rats in its headquarters. And the Texas School for the Deaf spent $18,000 in 2014 on extermination after rodent, raccoons, squirrels and possums were found throughout its building.

Seth Hutchinson, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, said the deterioration of state buildings is a common problem due to years of underfunding by the Legislature. He said when state agencies submit their budget requests, they’re told to either cut back or keep their budgets flat, forcing them to make tough decisions about what work to prioritize — and maintenance usually gets put on the cutting block.

He said for state workers, poor conditions have become “accepted as normal.”

“If money and attention is a sign of appreciation, the state Legislature doesn’t value state workers the way they should,” Hutchinson said. “Lawmakers have to understand it’s only going to get worse and worse and cost more and more money down the road and affect even more people.”

Luca said the Legislature only partially funds the Facilities Commission every two years, so the agency has gotten behind on many of the building’s maintenance needs. As a result, the agency reprioritizes its outstanding repair items every year based on available funding and “the most pressing health and safety or business continuity needs.”

“When you do this for two decades, that’s how you get $50 million behind in deferred maintenance [for one building],” Luca said. “It’s no longer cost effective to fix a building when we have an alternative.”

Overall, the Texas Facilities Commission requested almost $227.5 million this legislative session to address deferred maintenance needs in all 126 properties it manages across the state. The House approved the full amount to be funded as a one-time expense out of the state’s savings account. The Senate approved almost $94.3 million from general revenue. The actual amount the state spends will be worked out in the coming weeks.

The Facilities Commission estimates that the Hobby Building needs at least $49.6 million in repairs, Luca said.

Since 2008, the commission has spent more than $14.6 million on the building’s “most urgent items,” including new fire alarms and electrical systems, a new emergency generator, renovated elevators, and a new HVAC system, among other projects.

The $19 million the commission requested for the Hobby Building in its 2020-21 appropriations request will go toward “priority projects” including stair and handrail assemblies, exit and wayfinding signage, fire protections systems, security systems, failing cast iron plumbing and accessibility compliance, Luca said. She said as of fiscal year 2019, the Hobby Building was only 50% compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Another state employee, who retired in February and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, became familiar with the building’s problems during her two years in the building.

Aside from pest sightings, she said paint often peeled off the ceiling and walls, and when the flush boxes in the restrooms were replaced, holes were left in the walls and tiles and never filled. She said employees would wad up paper towels and place them in the openings to prevent rats and cockroaches from entering the building.

“It’s pretty demoralizing,” she said. “Nobody cares enough to make sure you have a clean, safe place to work.”