The University of Washington has $1 billion in deferred building maintenance, a new study has found, supporting complaints that have been raised by staff for years. But managers say hiring more workers won’t fix the problem.
Pipes leak. Drains back up, spilling sewage into basements. Utility rooms flood. Heating-system filters, rarely cleaned, clog with dust.
For more than a decade, maintenance workers at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus have said the UW isn’t spending enough to maintain its buildings. Now, a consultant’s report has identified a billion-dollar backlog in building fixes.
That includes millions of dollars in repairs needed at the sprawling Magnuson Health Sciences Center and other buildings constructed during the same era — particularly the 1960s and ’70s, when the UW was expanding rapidly to meet the demand for higher education by baby boomers.
Maintenance workers say the university needs to hire more workers so they have time to do preventive maintenance, not just respond to emergencies. The complaints come at a time when the union that represents workers is negotiating a new contract.
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Earlier this year, they signed a letter of no confidence in one of their supervisors, saying there has been “serious mismanagement of university resources.”
But UW officials say the maintenance backlog is composed of big-ticket projects, such as upgrading entire heating and electrical systems, replacing roofs and tuck-pointing brick facades. Hiring more maintenance workers won’t address the backlog — the problems are bigger than that — said Charles Kennedy, associate vice president of facilities services.
And he said the problem “is not unique to the UW — every campus in the U.S. is going through the same thing.” He will present a plan to the UW Board of Regents this fall, including a funding request, that will take a systematic approach to reducing the backlog, but said he wasn’t yet sure if that request would include money to hire more maintenance workers.
According to a national report by Sightlines, a Connecticut consulting firm, the nation’s colleges and universities face a collective backlog of $30 billion in deferred maintenance — in part because many colleges went on a building spree 50 years ago, when baby boomers were going to college. Those buildings are now in need of major updates.
As well, many states — including Washington — slashed higher-education budgets during the recession, and maintenance suffered as a result.
In its new report, Sightlines identified a $1 billion backlog in deferred maintenance at the UW. In 2016, the UW spent $15.7 million on campus maintenance, and $13 million on minor capital-renewal projects.
Paula Lukaszek, a plumber for the UW since 2003 and president of Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) Local 1488, said the two problems are related: The heating, plumbing and other systems inside the buildings would last longer if the UW spent more on day-to-day maintenance.
The Sightlines report found that the UW spent a little less than 20 cents per gross square foot on preventive maintenance in 2015 — well below its peers, such as the University of Oregon, University of Utah, Rutgers University and University of Colorado-Boulder. On average, those peer institutions spent 45 cents per gross square foot.
Lukaszek said most of her work involves emergency repairs. “For the most part, there is no preventive maintenance going on,” she said. “Pumps are failing, sewer lines are backing up — it just goes on and on.”
A native of Michigan who decided she wanted to be a plumber when she was 9 years old, Lukaszek has frequently stepped up to an open microphone during public events to raise her concerns about maintenance, including rotten wood beams underneath Guthrie Annex, and sewage backing up into Miller Hall because a storm drain was plugged with tree roots.
In July, Lukaszek said, she was called to fix a leaking pipe in Kane Hall, and she discovered the pipe already had 10 clamps on it — indications of previous fixes.
She’s leading the effort to push the UW to hire more maintenance employees. The UW has 280 maintenance workers, including carpenters, electricians and plumbers, and their numbers were cut by 39 people during the recession as part of the UW’s efforts to rein in costs, Kennedy said.
In April, 70 percent of workers in the building trades signed the no-confidence letter, which was directed at Damon Fetters, the director of facilities maintenance and construction.
Sarah Bright, a council representative for WFSE, said the UW is spending too much time and money hiring consultants, when what it needs to do is “listen to the people who actually do the work.”
In recent years, the university has hired more managers for maintenance staff. That’s a deliberate strategy because managers can decide which problems warrant immediate attention, allowing the UW to focus its work in targeted ways, Kennedy said.
“We don’t try to fix the whole building, we don’t have the resources for that,” he told the UW regents during a July meeting. The facilities services department has one supervisor for every eight employees, he said.
Kennedy said Sightlines consultants inspected 50 UW buildings, and despite the university’s low investment in maintenance, the buildings received scores on par with buildings at similar universities. “Given our current constraints, the UW is still being maintained at a very high level compared to our peers,” he said.
He said the report gave the UW useful information: It said, for example, that the UW’s use of its maintenance staff may indicate it’s working at “high efficiency.”
The no-confidence letter, he said, stemmed from reorganization efforts by Fetters. The union “liked the status quo — Damon was looking for change,” Kennedy said.
During the July meeting, the relatively small size of the UW staff compared to other schools seemed to give some regents pause. In addition to maintenance staffing, the report also showed that the UW has an unusually small custodial staff compared to similar institutions, and those custodians have to cover more ground than they used to because the UW has opened new buildings in the past five years.
Asked Regent Joanne Harrell: “How far is too far, when it comes to the load on our people?”