Asbestos on Campus

Broken down and discolored pipes in a Dudley Lawrence dorm room. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

Broken down and discolored pipes in a Dudley Lawrence dorm room. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

SLC students undergo a good deal of stress, affected by everything from conference papers to extra-curricular commitments. Sometimes, the saving grace is getting some sleep, even if it’s a quick catnap breaking up an all-nighter. But what if where we sleep is making us sick?

Several Sarah Lawrence operations workers, who wished to remain anonymous, discussed their long battle over getting the school to survey the possibility of asbestos on campus.

They affirmed that asbestos was specifically brought up during the labor negotiations last year (which finally ended with a union contract this past summer), and said they felt the need to raise the issue because “it is a safety hazard.” One worker reflected, “We were around it in the boiler rooms and stuff and we wanted it removed. They told us that there was no asbestos on campus and we told the lawyer that was B.S.”

According to, Beth Ditkoff, a biology professor at Sarah Lawrence, asbestos has the potential to pose a real threat to our health and safety. 

She explained, “Asbestos is a natural mineral product, which was used in the past in various construction materials such as insulation. Long-term exposure to asbestos can cause a serious lung condition called asbestosis—chronic scarring in the lungs leading to shortness of breath, cough and heart disease. The asbestos can also damage the lining around the lung leading to fluid buildup, difficulty breathing and intense pain.”

Air circulation was a major concern of the operations workers interviewed. “There are air handling units that we have to go in and turn valves and there is asbestos right near the valve and now its getting sucked up into the units and being blown out throughout the building,” one worker explained. He went further to say one of the rooms in the Performing Arts Center in fact had the issue of asbestos spreading through the air vents. Once the situation was recognized, the school had the asbestos removed from that designated room, but the worker clarified that this was only one room out of many that may have a similar issue.

Prior to winning their union contract, workers felt compelled to work in places they believed to be riddled with asbestos, because otherwise they would face possible dismissal. One worker explained the situation, “Before they could say ‘you’re not going to do your job? Fine then you’re fired’. At least now we can say no, or not be afraid to say no.”

Asbestos is not the only issue with Sarah Lawrence’s facilities. Victoria Mycue (’20) quoted Victoria Ford, a member of the board of trustees, in an October 2016 Phoenix article, “Meet the Couple who Funded the Gilbert/OSilas Renovations,” saying that most of the buildings on campus are at least thirty years behind code. The reason that asbestos is so concerning, apart from the other facility issues, is that in the mid-1900s, asbestos was a prevalent substance used in building homes until its eventual decline in the United States after the Clean Air Act of 1970. This time period is when many of Sarah Lawrence’s building were being built or renovated. It is not illegal to have asbestos containing material as long as it is not frayed, cut or damaged. But one of the workers said due to the amount of work they do near asbestos, “[I] can’t see how you can’t disturb it.”

Maureen Gallagher, the assistant vice president for facilities, denied the reports of harmful asbestos. “There is not an asbestos problem on campus.  Do we have asbestos containing materials (ACM) on campus? Yes. As you know the campus is 90 years old with many buildings having been built in the early to mid-1900’s,” she said. Paradoxically, she explained, there are situations when it is better for public safety not to remove asbestos. She said, “Having ACM in buildings when it’s not damaged or disturbed poses no risk for the occupants of the building and the well-being of all within in our community is one of the highest priorities of the College.” She added, “In many instances it is safer not to remove asbestos if the area in which it is contained is in good, sound condition.”

The workers do not seem to agree that the school’s main priority is safety. Rather, they believe money is doing most of the talking and leading administration to deny an asbestos issue. 

One worker said, “The whole thing came up when we were fighting to get the union here. They were saying that they are going to make [us] wear uniforms and we said ‘okay, no problem, we’ll wear uniforms.’ Then the union turns around and says ‘now you have to pay to clean those uniforms.’ The college asks ‘why’ and they said because [the workers] touch chemicals and asbestos, and the school says, ‘there’s no asbestos on campus.’ Everybody else in the room was like ‘yes there is.’”

This is not the first time that The Phoenix has covered asbestos on campus. In a 2012 Phoenix article titled, “Students grow frustrated with poor facilities management,” asbestos was cited as a major concern.

In that article, Mitchell Sutherland (’14) wrote about Dudley Lawrence and how the building was constructed at the height of ACM usage. He explained, “When buildings like Dudley Lawrence decay, becoming an epicenter of peeling paint and leaky pipes, the asbestos deteriorates. When this occurs, asbestos fibers tend to come lose and spread throughout the air. If inhaled, the fibers can cause mesothelioma, a cancer that grows on the lining of the lungs.”  In the article, Sutherland mentions 1984 as the last recorded time of asbestos removal.

In the 2012 article, Sutherland wrote that Gallagher said that the institution receives federal funding and thus does procedural surveys to stay up to code. In a recent correspondence with the Phoenix, Gallagher said, “Asbestos removal and air monitoring is done by licensed contractors.  Our maintenance employees do receive awareness training which helps them identify areas that may contain ACM so that we can bring in professionals to assess the situation, and if necessary, resolve the problem.”

The workers are at a consensus that whenever they have brought up asbestos, the school has “swept it under the rug.” The awareness training that the workers received started last year as a part of the labor negotiations. But one worker explained the inefficiencies of the training.      

He explained, “They actually skip through a lot of stuff. The school is paying them for their time. The guy said ‘well you don’t do this, this and this. So I won’t go over it.’ We had to stop him and say ‘yes, we do this, this and this.’”

There have been some recent improvements to asbestos on campus. Gallagher said early this semester that when Gilbert, now OSilas, was undergoing construction, asbestos was removed. The newly renovated laundry rooms were also checked for asbestos before their upgrades. The results led to some of the laundry rooms being cleaned for asbestos.

Gallagher added that there are two scheduled abatement projects for Westlands’ basement and Slonim in December/January and one more for sometime in 2017.  She added, “All of the work is contained in basements, boiler rooms and some storage rooms. I can also share the College is continuing its work with consultants to survey various parts of campus, especially basement and boiler room areas, which will allow the College to formally identify any additional necessary abatement projects.”

It is unclear whether these abatement projects are as a result of or in a preemptive response to the workers’ latest meeting with the administration and union leaders. The meeting was scheduled sometime in early November. Unfortunately, Gallagher was unable to reply in time to give a response about the meeting. In whatever case, thankfully the workers’ voices are being legitimized. Not only is the school starting asbestos surveys, but also it conceded and purchased protective equipment for the workers.

But, if these abatement projects are restricted to boilers and basements, are they overlooking possible asbestos in dorms, kitchens, classrooms, and offices? Workers are in more direct contact with contaminants, but if there is peeling on the walls, or cracks in floors, there is a possibility of disturbed asbestos in upper levels of buildings. One worker said that the New Dorms gives him the most concern. He recalled, “In RGT I have to climb on top of the boilers, stand on it, to switch the valves. Is it asbestos? I’m not sure, but I believe it is. It’s got to be tested.”

The procedure for asbestos is extremely costly. It requires two outside companies to come in so one can perform the tests, including air monitoring, while the other examines the first group. Is this why repeated concerns about asbestos have gone unheeded for so long?  It will be many years before one could survey the true damage asbestos has caused, since related health problems show up later in life. Youth are the most susceptible to long-term damage, because they are still in development. The cost may be high to survey and potentially close buildings due to asbestos. But can we put a price on the health of our workers, faculty and students?

As one worker summed the situation up, “You would think in this day in age and at this school, all of it would be removed.”

Andrea Cantor '17

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Over a Year After Move to Unionize, Facilities Workers Discuss Option to Go on Strike

Facilities Worker Patsy Morano Talking about the ongoing labor negotiations on news 12: Westchester. Photo credit: Janaki Chadha

Facilities Worker Patsy Morano Talking about the ongoing labor negotiations on news 12: Westchester. Photo credit: Janaki Chadha

Less than a week before the most recent session of contract negotiations between facilities workers and college administration, Sarah Lawrence found itself to be the focus of a segment on News 12: Westchester's afternoon broadcast. The subject of the segment was a bake sale organized by SLC Worker's Justice to show student support for the workers, who moved to unionize in December 2014 and have been in the process of negotiations with the College since January of last year.

News 12 reporter Grace Noone observed, "You wouldn't expect students at Sarah Lawrence College, one of the most expensive in the nation, to hawk treats for the workers who keep their heat, air-conditioning and plumbing up and running."

She went on to detail concerns that have been voiced by members of the community for months—namely, arguments that operations workers are underpaid by the college, and that at times they work in unsafe conditions. Sarah Lawrence declined to comment for the segment, but on Monday afternoon, an email sent out by Maureen Gallagher, Assistant Vice President for Facilities, and Julie Auster, Vice President for Human Resource Services and Legal Affairs—both of whom sit on the College's bargaining committee—set out to provide information they wrote had been "missing from recent accounts and press coverage".

They assured that negotiations are not being delayed or dragged on by either side, and that Sarah Lawrence has been and will continue to negotiate in good faith. "Both sides have devoted countless hours to the bargaining process and have made significant progress toward a multi-year labor agreement," they said.

But those on the other side of the bargaining table have expressed a markedly different outlook on the progress of negotiations. The day after the latest bargaining session last Monday, six out of the twelve operations workers employed by the school did not come to work to send a message about their dissatisfaction with how they feel negotiations have stalled, particularly on the subject of wages.

"Basically, we're negotiating with ourselves," said Patsy Morano, a facilities worker who is part of the union bargaining committee. "They say they're negotiating in good faith but when you come down six dollars and they come up thirty cents, that's like a slap in the face to everybody." He continued, "They always write, things are going good—No, things ain't going good. Maybe things are going good on your end, they're not going good on my end."

Gallagher and Auster focused on two main points: that, from the college's perspective, facilities workers are not underpaid, and that the workers are not subjected to unsafe conditions, as was brought up in the News 12 segment. While the school has limited financial resources due to factors such as its location and relatively small endowment, they said, "The College’s bargaining team has surveyed wage and benefit levels for the same or similar jobs at several peer institutions, both union and non-union, and have found that Sarah Lawrence pay rates [for maintenance workers] are competitive."

Chair of Sarah Lawrence Worker's Justice and graduate student Hank Broege says this is inaccurate. "If you look at average wages for skilled journeymen like Patsy in Westchester, they're underpaid," he said. Women's History professor Priscilla Murolo, who also sits on the union bargaining committee and writes a blog about the negotiations, has argued that the peer institutions Sarah Lawrence is referencing to justify its pay rates, such as Skidmore College and Vassar College, are located in places with a vastly lower cost of living than Westchester County. If one factors this in, she says, Sarah Lawrence pay rates aren't competitive at all.

Gallagher and Auster argued last Monday that some disparity in the pay rate is justified because, they say, "the majority [of the maintenance staff] do not possess the highest credentials in their respective trades.”

The second source of contention on this issue is a recent Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) investigation into working conditions for maintenance workers at the College. Gallagher and Auster stated the investigation "confirmed that our work conditions are safe and our safety measures and training for our staff meet or exceed all the appropriate standards and guidelines." Those on the union bargaining committee, however, question the validity of this.

Morano says an OSHA representative pointed out dangerous areas on campus to him that workers should not enter, and that in his nine years at the College, the workers have not received OSHA training for how to handle asbestos and confined spaces. He said the College has promised future training for these two scenarios, but added, “that's because we got the union involved.” Broege also pointed out that the record of the investigation on the OSHA website says the case is currently open. The Phoenix reached out to the local OSHA office, which confirmed that the case is still in progress, but the conclusions that can be drawn from that are unclear.

Over the past few weeks, these frustrations have come to a point where the workers have begun discussing the possibility of going on strike if the College refuses to budge any further. Morano says the bargaining session this last Monday has moved him closer to voting in favor if it comes to that.

“As far as I'm concerned, and I'm speaking for me, I'm voting to strike,” he said. “I ain't just taking [their current offer]. I can't speak for all the guys, because they have families, they have houses, you know what I mean? I can't blame them, to vote not to strike, 'cus you could lose your job. And could I afford to lose my job? No, like everybody else.”

Broege explained that this process would start when the College offers what is called a 'best and final', which, he says, “is basically telling our side, take this contract that we've offered or go on strike,”—following this, the workers would take a vote. While the outcome of a strike can be that the employer gives in to certain demands, workers also face a serious risk of being fired, because, as Professor Murolo explains, “The law does not prevent them their replacement if they strike for a purely economic reason."

Asked for a comment on this possibility, Julie Auster told the Phoenix, “I certainly hope that a strike won't happen because everyone suffers in a strike including the workers. On the other hand the College recognizes that this possibility exists and is prepared for any eventuality.”

Discussions about these negotiations continue to go back to the school's priorities and what many perceive as a lack of financial transparency. Despite pressure from many in the community, the College still has not revealed how much they are paying Bond, Schoeneck & King, the law firm they hired in response to unionization efforts. Since the beginning of negotiations over a year ago, the firm has been heavily criticized by both students and faculty who say it has a reputation for busting unions.

The lawyer for the College, Ray Pascucci, has argued that, in terms of pay rates, the financial realities of the schools make it so salaries across the board (as in, not just facilities workers, but also professors, etc.) are generally at the lower end of the spectrum when compared to peer schools. But Professor Murolo has pointed out on her blog that while he may be right for the majority of those employed by the College, the salary of the president is right at the middle. "This is about priorities, this is not about being broke,” she commented.

On the same note, Morano said, “You say you got no money—well, how are you paying this lawyer? You're not paying him with peanuts, you're finding the money from somewhere. Well, you know what? You should be able to find money for the workers, the guys who keep the place going.”

Last week's email ended with Gallagher and Auster saying, “We fully respect [the workers'] right to unionize, and we are dedicated to being as supportive and fair toward them as we can be.” Speaking to the Phoenix separately, Auster said, “I think everyone involved in the negotiations is feeling somewhat frustrated and anxious to reach a conclusion, but this process takes a lot of time, and as long as both parties continue to negotiate in good faith I am optimistic that we can reach a contract sooner rather than later.”

But it doesn't seem the tensions around this issue are dissolving anytime soon. Both Morano and Broege felt the email was “just damage control”—a response to bad publicity. Morano continued, “They should be ashamed of themselves, especially this college, the name it has and what they stand for.” Reflecting on the past few months of negotiations, he added, “I never thought it would go this long. I thought they would be more fair about it. But are we better off with the union here now? Absolutely. At least we got a voice."

Janaki Chadha '17