The Texas Tribune
On Jan. 16, an employee at the Texas Department of Insurance noticed an unwelcome pest in her fifth-floor office in one of the towers of downtown Austin’s William P. Hobby Jr. State Office Building.
“Rat was in the ceiling and just poked his head out to look at an employee,” her maintenance work order described the encounter.
It’s just one of hundreds of work orders submitted to the Texas Facilities Commission, which functions as the property manager for many state buildings, by employees working in the Hobby Building between September 2010 and March 2019. The requested services were for rats, bugs and other pests, according to public records obtained by The Texas Tribune.
In one work order, ants were dropping from the ceiling onto an employee’s hands while she worked at her computer. In another, an employee put on a coat at the end of the day, and a live rat jumped out of the pocket. Other work orders described cockroaches in various locations. Some employees reported being bitten by bugs while in the office. And employees often reported hearing rats moving around in the ceiling, sometimes shaking the ceiling tiles.
The three towers of the 35-year-old Hobby Building hold smaller state agencies that include the Texas Medical Board, the Texas Department of Insurance, the Texas State Board of Pharmacy and the Texas Board of Nursing, among others. This year, the Legislature is considering selling the building.
For the employees who work there, rat sightings are commonplace. Since September 2010, employees have reported and requested services to deal with rats close to every month of every year, records show. Employees have requested services for roaches, ants and other bugs at the same rate.
“The first thing I was told [when I was hired] was, ‘Be aware, there’s rats. Your food isn’t safe in the file cabinets, and be sure to keep your food in metal containers,’” said one state employee, who started working in the building in 2014.
In August, she said, she put in a work order the morning after noticing a half-eaten sausage – which hadn’t come from anyone in the office – under a desk. A T.F.C. employee set a trap in the ceiling, which was left there during the weekend.
“The trap caught the rat over the weekend, but it bled out,” she said. “[When we came back,] blood was running down the walls and onto the clock on the wall.”
She said run-ins with pests happen almost daily for employees in the building. In 2016, her office had a bedbug problem. When the commission renovated the elevators and HVAC system, it disturbed the rats, leading to more frequent sightings of rat droppings and causing nesting material to fall from the ceiling onto computers and desks. And she said pulling back shelves or cubicles in the office often means finding hidden rat runways covered in droppings and hair.
“It’s gross, it’s a health hazard and it’s dangerous, she said.”
Bringing in outside help
Because of the commission’s limited budget, there is only one full-time employee who handles monthly pest services for the building and about 40 other Austin properties.
Earlier this year, the commission inspected the building and sealed and treated all of the cracks and gaps that could potentially allow pests to get inside. Normally, the building is serviced once per month and on a spot-treatment basis, said Francoise Luca, communications specialist at the T.F.C.
“Snap traps are used inside the building to trap rodents, and bait stations are used only in the parking garages,” she said in an email.
Luca said the building’s location near many restaurants and bars in downtown Austin creates “numerous challenges” for the maintenance team, but she doesn’t think the building has a major problem with rats.
“I can understand that one rodent is one too many,” she said. “[But I would also] be concerned about the security system, and the fire protection system and the other systems. This building obviously is an older building, it sits in our downtown business district. It is not immune to any of the other problems that any of our other buildings experience.”
But employees in the building disagree. They said that many people were “so distrustful” of the commission that employees in the building often do their own cleanups, including the employee who spoke with The Texas Tribune who has removed all her personal items from her office and thoroughly wipes down her desk with disinfectant wipes before work every day.
“It’s evident that people in the facilities commission and in charge of the Hobby Building don’t care. And if they do care, it’s a secret because nobody can tell,” she said.
Hoping to sell
The pest problem is just one of many deficiencies that lawmakers have pointed to as they seek to rid the state of the property this legislative session. Bills moving through both the House and Senate would allow the state to auction off the building. Lawmakers have consistently referred to the building as an “underperforming asset” that is too expensive to maintain.
“To use well-chosen words, it’s an embarrassment,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, at a Senate Committee on Business and Commerce hearing in April.
He authored one of those bills, Senate Bill 1349, which was voted out of the Senate and now heads to the House for consideration.
Even if his legislation passes, it could take several years to sell the building, he said, and that some of the employees may be relocated to new buildings on the Capitol grounds that will be created by the Capitol Complex construction project and are expected to begin occupancy in 2021, according to the project’s website.
Attention brought by the potential sale has prompted the the commission to contract with ABC Home & Commercial Services, a local pest control company, to provide “full pest and rodent eradication services” in the building, Luca said.
Loren Smith, property manager for the building, said the contract with ABC helps the pest control services become more visible to the building’s employees. And because the one full-time employee is split between so many properties, he often treats the building during the evening, going unseen by employees.
“The contract with ABC has assisted in helping us have more of a presence to allow us to show there’s more work done to eradicate the rodents in the buildings,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that before we didn’t fully handle it; it’s just a larger impression of what’s happening.”
The state employee said her office has only experienced one pest incident since ABC began working in the building earlier this month.