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As UNC maintenance backlog hits record high, facility worker morale at an 'all time low'

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Barriers bar the front entrance to Alumni Hall on Sunday, April 23, 2023. The building's broken step is one of many maintenance projects UNC has yet to complete.

This academic year has continued to place a spotlight on struggles of living, working and studying on UNC’s campus.

Frustrations with a lack of accessibility, concerns of lead in the drinking water and a growing deferred maintenance backlog. 

Deferred maintenance

There is now a record $1.1 billion worth of UNC maintenance backlogged — deferred until the University has available funds.

Specifically, $357 million in HVAC, $82 million in plumbing, $70 million in fire protection and $47 million in elevators and lifts maintenance awaits funding.

“With the looming billion dollar deferred maintenance hanging over us, we all know that we are just riding it out until it all breaks down,” one campus facility worker, with 30 years of experience, said in an email. They preferred to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job.

While the backlog doesn’t signal a compromise of safety or health in the short term, they said the long term effects of degrading buildings should be considered. Buildings are not going to fall down but working everyday in a "dilapidated" building should not be something staff and students should have to worry about.

“Addressing the backlog of deferred maintenance continues to be a priority for the University,” UNC Media Relations said in a statement, adding that any occupancy concerns should be reported to Environment, Health and Safety. 

State capital funding increases have been “significantly above” historical levels, Media Relations said, but the University is optimistic that state funding for repair and restoration will increase. 

The current backlog amount does not reflect “substantial funding” the University is being allocated from the state to address deferred maintenance and signature projects.

Media Relations said increases in the backlog are largely a result of construction costs but have also been influenced by inflation and repair costs associated with projects left unaddressed.

The facility worker said attempts to fix things “the right way” are often shot down or delayed by UNC Facilities leadership because of the cost, with bureaucracy causing many delays.

“We are micromanaged on most every purchase right down to light bulbs,” they said. 

They said that many times, problems could be fixed five days sooner by just running to the hardware store.

“This is not an exaggeration,” they said. 

Internal frustrations

The facility worker said morale among their colleagues is at an “all time low," because they are understaffed and underpaid. 

“There is no incentive to really do any more than what keeps us out of trouble,” they said. 

Even after decades on the job, “the ends no longer meet,” they said, calling raises “minor jokes.”

Unable to use maintenance trucks for when they're on-call, they said it is not uncommon for gas used to cost more than they make working the extra hours. 

UNC Media Relations said the policy of not allowing staff to drive state-owned vehicles home during assigned on-call periods is a cost-saving measure implemented in 2021 to avoid workforce reductions during budget struggles.

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"The University continues to face a challenging workforce environment, and like many campus units, Finance and Operations is struggling to recruit and retain critical staff," Media Relations said in a statement.

Media Relations said the division is committed to supporting its employees and has recently implemented pay increases and bonuses.

To many facility workers, the “pet projects” driven by personal politics are frustrating. 

“The professors are very entitled here," they said. "They're very, very spoiled, and they get whatever they want as long as it's loud enough."

They described having to repaint offices different colors or moving cabinets year to year — especially in the revenue-generating departments. However, they acknowledge that these project requests may keep professors from taking offers elsewhere. 

“When you're a billion dollars in the hole on maintenance, we’d think we need to prioritize where money is spent versus the triage stuff," they said.

They said while the maintenance backlog is likely to never be completely resolved, reassessing where money should be prioritized is important moving forward.

These frustrations go unspoken since workers are “strictly” told not to speak with the press in any circumstance — without reason.

“In the last few years, they've really clamped down on we're not allowed to talk to (the press) because I lose my job if my name were to get out,” they said.

UNC Media Relations said employees are not prohibited from speaking out on topics "as an individual," and they are asked not to make statements or speak on behalf of the University without coordinating with communications staff.

The facility worker said all of facilities services signed non-disclosure agreements in October, but UNC Media Relations said "no non-disclosure agreement exists for Finance and Operations employees."

Lead testing conclusion

“Certainly, we are confident that everyone on campus has access to lead-free drinking water,” George Battle, UNC’s vice chancellor for institutional integrity and risk management, said.

The University’s eight-month endeavor of testing every drinking fixture on-campus — about 3,900 in total — for lead officially came to an end last month. 

About 146 buildings had at least one fixture with detectable levels of lead. Twenty-nine facilities were found with levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold to take action — 15 parts per billion.

“The vast majority of fixtures that we tested did not show evidence of lead, right? And even further, even when you look at the ones that showed evidence of lead, the vast majority of them were below 15 parts per billion,” Battle said.

Corrective repair or replacement action took — or is taking —  place for all 420 fixtures that tested positive for lead. A timeline for the conclusion of this work is unclear, he said, since each fixture may require a different remedial approach involving installation or replacement of filters, pipes or full fixtures.

Remediation is complete for 101 fixtures so far, according to Media Relations. Once fixtures are repaired or replaced, they are tested for lead once again.

With the exception of Spencer Residence Hall, all on-campus housing remediation work has been completed, Battle said.

After dozens of recently installed in-room sinks were found with lead, an investigation took place to find the source of lead in Spencer.

Even though work continues, the building will be open for residents in the fall. All of the drinking water sources in the residence hall are being filtered for impurities and the water safe to consume, Battle said.

Moving forward, the University plans to test fixtures in buildings constructed prior to 2014 every three years.

This Sunday is the final day to receive free blood lead level testing at Campus Health or the Employee Occupational Health Clinic for those living, working or studying in affected buildings. 

According to EHS, no results received so far were above the normal reference range.

Battle said he appreciated the level of teamwork and transparency by the entire University as every facility was tested for lead. 

“I don't know how it could have been any more transparent with reporting out,” he said.

Battle also said, because of the testing conclusions, there is no reason to be concerned with the safety of the campus drinking water.

“In terms of if you're measuring the safety of your drinking water by the presence of lead, we got the safest drinking water in the country,” he said. “I mean, if there's any place safer, I don't know where it is.”

@forepreston 

university@dailytarheel.com