Will the Grant Sawyer building’s proposed remodel finally fix interior problems?

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Wade Vandervort

An interior view of the Grant Sawyer State Office Building is seen here Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.

Mon, Mar 11, 2019 (2 a.m.)

Amid ongoing workers’ compensation cases from employees of the Grant Sawyer State Office Building, the state is looking to allocate funds to address longstanding structural issues at the building just north of downtown.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proposed budget includes more than $8 million for an interior remodel of the 23-year-old building, as well as more than $6 million for the design and construction of a new 100,000-square-foot state office building to be located next to Grant Sawyer.

Built in 1995, Grant Sawyer is the primary state office facility in Las Vegas and houses more than 700 government employees. If approved by the Nevada Legislature in June, the funding for the new building and the interior remodel would be the latest public money spent in a two-decades-long effort to address problems plaguing Grant Sawyer, sometimes retroactively, some employees say.

Dangerous black mold and “sick building syndrome” — characterized by fatigue, headaches, cold and cough symptoms and body aches due to poor indoor air quality — have been documented by employees since shortly after the building opened in 1995. The mysterious illnesses have prompted several rounds of workers' compensation claims over the years, although the state Department of Administration isn’t sure how many cases are active. The department oversees building construction and maintenance, among other responsibilities.

In the last few years, employees have raised additional concerns about the building: leaking sewage, unpredictable and uncomfortable temperatures, falling ceiling tiles, foul odors, pigeon feathers seeping through the vents, and a return of the black mold despite assurance that the problem had been fixed. Many of these issues trace back to a subpar piping system, officials said.

Some employees have left jobs at the building out of concern for their health, or worked permanently from home. Last year, the Secretary of State’s Office moved to North Las Vegas due to building-related ailments plaguing many of their employees.

But it wasn’t until December 2017 that the state hired an independent occupational and environmental medicine consultant, Dr. James Craner, to study the issues, in particular the mold. Craner found that the levels of black mold in the building did not, in general, pose an immediate hazard.

However, Craner observed that the mold contamination seemed to affect some employees more than others. According to minutes from a June 2018 state Interim Finance Committee meeting, Chief Deputy Secretary of State Scott Anderson said that Craner advised employees “most emphatically” not to work in the building if they experienced sick building syndrome.

Craner also recommended a remediation of the building to completely remove the mold. This, as well as a series of other renovations, were completed between July and February and cost approximately $5.8 million.

They included upgrades to the HVAC system, roof repairs, carpet cleaning, ceiling tile replacements and plumbing improvements. Additional renovations took place earlier last year.

Richard McCann, a lawyer with the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers, isn’t convinced the renovations adequately improved conditions for employees working in the building, some of whom he has represented in workers’ compensation cases.

“If they’re trying to renovate that enormous facility with 700 people in it by changing out some carpeting and moving things around, that’s nice, but it’s not resolving the problems,” McCann said.

Lloyd May, a former employee in the Buildings and Grounds Department, alleges his bosses consistently ignored and instructed employees to cover up the mold problems. May worked for the department from 2006 to February, and served as the go-to maintenance person at Grant Sawyer in 2017 and 2018.

May added that while working on the failing pipes throughout the building, he was routinely exposed to methane gas released from the sewage system.

“I felt nausea and had major headaches when I was working in that building because of the methane gas and with the black mold,” he said.

Louis Haynie, a retired Gaming Control Board officer, described similar symptoms from his time at Grant Sawyer between 2009 and 2017. Complaints sent to state officials from Haynie and his co-workers were never resolved, he said.

“The maintenance people in the building did the best they could with the limited resources they were given, but they had a budget of like $0,” Haynie said.

Haynie’s ailments subsided when he retired, but he said that some colleagues have suffered from long-term symptoms. Some who continue to work there, Haynie added, say they still feel symptomatic at times.

“It’s literally poisoning you,” Haynie said. “I know several people have reached that point, and they’re going through the process of workmen’s compensation.”

Patrick Cates, former director of the state Department of Administration, admitted that employees at his department did not always respond adequately to complaints raised in the past, according to meeting minutes from the same Interim Finance Committee meeting last June.

“Mr. Cates said the Department of Administration began making significant personnel changes as soon as the depth of some of those problems came to light,” the minutes say. “The department accepted responsibility and began taking significant steps to correct the problems.”

The Sun was unable to reach current employees at Grant Sawyer who could speak to whether building conditions had improved since the renovations and personnel changes. One employee of the Gaming Control Board said no one would be able to comment on anything relating to Grant Sawyer.

Despite the complaints raised by some employees, Grant Sawyer remains safe to work in, especially after the recent round of renovations, said Deonne Contine, director of the Department of Administration. She joined the department in late February.

“There are no concerns regarding the structure of the GSOB,” Contine wrote in an email.

Since the renovations were completed, Buildings and Grounds has employed three staff members to monitor the building during business hours, ensuring that it remains safe and comfortable, added Tawny Polito, the executive assistant to Contine.

As for the proposed interior remodel, Contine said it would resolve issues entirely separate from the black mold and the renovations that took place last year.

“The proposed remodel includes roof-mounted air handling units, plumbing, sewer, elevators and life safety system upgrades and modifications,” she wrote. “The proposed remodel will also include replacing interior partitions, carpet, wall coverings and interior lighting.”

Meanwhile, the new building would help meet office space needs at Grant Sawyer.

“The space needs of the GSOB occupants is growing and a new structure will support that growth as well as implementation of the GSOB remodel,” Contine wrote.

It has not yet been determined which departments at Grant Sawyer would stay in the existing building, and which would be transferred to the new building. Both the interior remodel and construction of the new building would not begin until at least 2021.

Although it appears that the state is closer than ever before to resolving problems at Grant Sawyer, the news of the planned interior remodel, proposed in August as the building was still undergoing other renovations, raised eyebrows for some members of the state Public Works Board. When that board reviewed the proposed interior remodel in August, some members questioned why a complete interior overhaul was needed for a building that hadn’t yet turned 24.

“I’m just curious, in 23 years, systems need replacing and maintaining and upgrading. But they rarely need to be completely gutted and overhauled,” Chairman Bryce Clutts said at the meeting. “So I’m just trying to understand what happened with this particular building.”

When posed that question in an interview, Contine said it would be difficult to trace what state officials had signed off on the structural details of Grant Sawyer nearly 25 years ago. “There’s a lot of legal things you’d have to look into,” she said.

Nonetheless, another board member, Tito Tiberti, said at the August meeting that it would be helpful to find out how the building was originally designed and approved.

“This was not done right in the beginning,” Tiberti said. “I don’t know what it could be. But this is a lesson.”

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