Queens College officials need to deliver room-by-room ventilation reports, says former PSC President Barbara Bowen. (Credit: Desiree Rios)
Mold, inadequate ventilation and lack of heat are perennial problems throughout CUNY. Unfortunately, members at several campuses are currently working under these conditions and are urging their administrations to fix them. Years of deferred maintenance and an aging building infrastructure contribute to these problems, but they are not the only factors.
While increased state and city funding can address campus infrastructure needs, many times health and safety issues at CUNY are the result of inadequate action from management. Below are stories of recent health and safety issues on CUNY campuses and how the union and PSC members are working to make them better.
Mold grows in Brooklyn
In September, a state licensed mold assessor found 880 feet of mold on a closet door, under tables, on chairs and hiding in other spaces at the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center (BEOC) in downtown Brooklyn.
This mold isn’t the typical mold found at CUNY.
“Usually mold conditions come from leaks. The roof is leaking or the risers that carry the water is leaking. This is really different from that. That’s why it is [almost] invisible,” said Jean Grassman, a PSC Environmental Health and Safety coordinator and an associate professor of environmental, occupational and geospatial health sciences at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy who attended the September 21 inspection.
A May 31 inspection done for the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), which oversees many CUNY buildings but not necessarily offices rented by CUNY, did not find any evidence of mold. But after the September 21 inspection, spearheaded by the union, CUNY agreed to have the BEOC custodial staff clean the mold off all the surfaces. CUNY also agreed to have a professional engineer evaluate the building’s HVAC system.
“In order to clean it, you have to turn everything upside down,” said Grassman. “It’s not going to be fun for them.”
Members raised issues about mold and a lawsuit by Legal Aid, another tenant in the building where BEOC rents out space at 111 Livingston, documented rampant mold found by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH). In November 2021, the DOH issued multiple summonses to the building’s landlord, the Lesser Group, when it failed to remediate the mold in Legal Aid’s offices. Clarion first reported about the issue in May 2022.
“The pattern of [mold] growth is consistent with elevated humidity and condensation,” wrote Ed Olmstead, a union-hired industrial hygienist, in his indoor environmental report of the BEOC offices. “The elevated humidity and associated mold growth is caused by the operation of the building ventilation system.”
On the day of the walk-through, union leadership learned that they would only be getting access to a secondary HVAC system serving the library, not the building’s main HVAC system. That’s where Olmstead first found mold.
“It was on the [closet] door,” recalled Grassman.
CUNY administrators didn’t dispute the presence of mold, but refused to sample and test it. More mold was found elsewhere.
As Clarion went to press, CUNY had yet to tell the PSC when it would fix the mold issue or inspect the building’s main HVAC system. The union plans to give members temperature and humidity monitors to keep an eye on conditions.
“I hope that CUNY and the BEOC administration take this matter seriously and take the appropriate steps to remediate the situation,” said PSC Treasurer Felicia Wharton, who was previously PSC BEOC chapter chair. “There are no shortcuts when dealing with members’ health and safety and mold remediation.”
Editor’s note: PSC members can learn more about what mold is, how it grows, the range of health impacts its existence can cause and what regulatory steps are needed for its effective remediation. On December 7, from 6 to 8 pm, Ed Olmstead, the industrial hygienist who inspected the BEOC offices, will be holding a Zoom meeting on Mold and Workers’ Health. To register for this meeting, go to tinyurl.com/PSC-mold-zoom-meeting.
Little breathing room in Queens
When Barbara Bowen returned to in-person teaching at Queens College (QC) after two decades serving as PSC president, she didn’t expect such an unpleasant welcome.
In testimony to the CUNY Board of Trustees, she described her assigned classroom as “windowless, cramped and with cinder block walls.”
“It has a small UV air purifier, [where there is] no indication that the filters are ever changed, and one filthy, decrepit fan for ventilation. Every class session, we have to choose between the fan that makes it impossible to hear each other, or the noise of the corridor if we leave the door open for air, or the stifling heat, or worse, [keeping] the door closed.”
But she isn’t alone at QC. “Many are in windowless, poorly ventilated rooms like mine,” said Bowen, an associate professor of English. “One colleague resorted to buying her own carbon dioxide monitor. The recommended level of carbon dioxide, indicating sufficient fresh air intake and reduced risk of viral transmission, is below 1,000 parts per million. Her classroom measured 2,500.”
What’s worse, Bowen said, is that the QC and CUNY administrations have not been forthcoming with any reports on campus ventilation.
“The Queens College union chapter had to submit a FOIL request to get the report produced by Ramboll, [CUNY’s] consulting firm. But the Ramboll report was not [a] room-by-room [assessment] and seemed designed only to provide written clearance that the buildings could be reopened,” she said, airing frustrations about the lack of information on ventilation. “That [CUNY has] failed to provide ventilation data is bad enough. That you have done so while imposing a ban on requests that students wear masks is reckless and absurd,” said Bowen.
The administration can’t blame this inaction on lack of funding, Bowen said. QC was allocated $55 million in federal stimulus money, and in the college’s report on those funds, she said, “indicates that it still has unspent funding and lists zero expenditures on ‘implementing evidence-based practices to monitor and suppress coronavirus in accordance with public health guidelines.’”
“Why hasn’t the federal money been spent to commission a true room-by-room ventilation report, publicize the report and act on its findings? It’s not too late to do a report now,” Bowen said. “Until you do, you need to tell us why any of us should risk our health and our lives in rooms where the air may not be safe to breathe.”
Cold in the Bronx
October hit, the temperatures dipped and several Bronx Community College (BCC) buildings were left without heat. Heat was restored more than a month later, but in November most classes were moved online due to “intermittent heating issues,” BCC’s president said.
“The campus gets heat from several boilers, but the system is so old that they need to both repair the boiler and the vents,” said Yasmin Edwards, the PSC BCC chapter chair.
The chapter asked the “administration [to] distribute heaters and we were told by the Vice President for [Administration and] Finance Kay Ellis that they would, but this never happened,” Edwards said, adding that, “No one is willing to make the call to move classes that can be moved to a remote modality.” Meanwhile, she said, “Some HEOs are purchasing space heaters, but the more this happens, [the more] it strains the substandard electrical system.”
Inside Higher Ed reported that according to Edwards some “mornings dipped into the 40s and could be felt in the older buildings on campus,” inspiring some faculty members to “[choose] to hold class sessions online as a result.”
As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” In February 2020, Clarion reported that the BCC Faculty Council issued a vote of no confidence against Ellis for “allowing gross physical deterioration throughout campus, including a lack of proper lighting and inadequate indoor heating under her watch.” Last year, the PSC had to fight to shut down Nichols Hall due to “inadequate ventilation and mold in the building.” And in April 2019, Clarion reported that decades of neglect at Colston Hall led to burst pipes that resulted in an immediate shutdown of the building.
While union pressure finally forced the BCC administration to restore heat, PSC members believed a month-plus wait was far too long. The whole affair, they said, underscored the deteriorating infrastructure at CUNY that negatively impacts its hardworking students.
“We should not be complicit in having our students sit for hours in cold classrooms,” said Edwards, an associate professor in biological sciences. “This is unconscionable.”
Published: November 21, 2022
Last Modified: November 30, 2022