Asbestos disclosure is urged
WASHINGTON -- An asbestos-related incident at the Social Security Administration in Maryland that sent hundreds of employees home Monday may result in better communication between management and employees, said the head of the union that represents the workers.
In the past, SSA management has had the "paternalistic" attitude of not telling employees about asbestos so that they "don't worry about it," said John Gage, head of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees. "I think that's an immature approach and dishonest."
But after the incident Monday at the headquarters in Woodlawn, SSA Commissioner Gwendolyn S. King called for "eyeball-to-eyeball communication and full disclosure" of the asbestos situation, Mr. Gage said.
Some 300 to 400 employees who work on the second floor of the Annex Building found signs warning them of the danger of
asbestos when they arrived for work Monday morning, according to Earle Hollenbaugh, a control clerk and a member of SSA's Joint Union-Management Health and Safety Committee.
The employees, who work in the Division of Finance and the Office of Disability, gathered in a conference room and cafeteria. Eventually, they were sent home.
Later in the day, results of in-house tests showed no asbestos contamination. But Mr. Hollenbaugh and Mr. Gage faulted SSA management for not contacting union representatives Friday when the possibility of contamination first arose.
Late Friday afternoon, contract workers performing routine renovations strayed too close to the building's outer walls, Mr. Hollenbaugh said. The walls are known to contain asbestos and construction was forbidden to occur within 10 feet of the building's periphery.
The workers "went all the way to the wall," Mr. Hollenbaugh said.
A plastic dust barrier was put up Friday as soon as the error was discovered, said Frank Battistelli, an SSA spokesman. Although air samples proved negative, a special team was brought in over the weekend to "clean up what [unexposed] asbestos there was and to get it out of the way," he said.
Union representatives "didn't know about this until we got to work Monday morning and found a pile of messages from employees," Mr. Gage said. The agency is required to alert workers to the presence of asbestos "if there is a possibility it will be disturbed," such as by renovations, Mr. Hollenbaugh said.
Mr. Battistelli said the union "perhaps should have been notified on Friday -- there is some disagreement about whether they should have been notified. The important thing is that there was no delay in taking action to seal the area off and clean up."
The union called in an AFL-CIO affiliated scientist Monday to conduct another set of tests, which also resulted in negative readings. The outside evaluator was brought in because "many employees here, after a lot of experience with SSA management, are skeptical of what they are told," Mr. Hollenbaugh said.
Both he and Mr. Gage said SSA management has a history of hiding information about asbestos. "We were upset about the Security West Building because they've been telling us for years there was no asbestos in that building," said Mr. Hollenbaugh. Last week, "they informed us there was asbestos in some suspended ceiling tiles."
The SSA administration had known about the asbestos in Security West since 1990, Mr. Gage said.
Members of five unions representing federal employees have sent a letter to President Bush expressing "feelings of outrage and betrayal" over his plan to delay annual pay increases for three months in 1993.
The leaders, who represent labor on the Federal Salary Council, accused Mr. Bush of ignoring the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990, which is intended "to divorce federal pay from the political process."
The president said the law allows him to delay pay increases in the case of "severe economic conditions," defined as two quarters of negative growth in the Gross National Product in a July-through-June period. Government figures indicate there were two quarters of negative growth in the last period, but the union leaders said in their letter that "those conditions [established in FEPCA] do not exist."
"Your proposal, at the front end of this ten-year period, calls in to [sic] question your commitment to the very policy you advocated a little over one year ago," the letter stated.
The delay, which would save the government an estimated $460 million, also is inconsistent with the president's other policies that are designed to stimulate growth by putting money in the hands of taxpayers, the letter said.
The letter was signed by officials of the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Government Employees, the American Nurses Association, the National Federation of Federal Employees, and the National Treasury Employees Union.