Bathroom shuttle bus a no-go for state workers

Pipe break at Harriman campus disables toilets, inspires short-lived transit plan for restrooms

RICK KARLIN Capitol bureau
Section: Main,  Page: A3

Date: Friday, December 7, 2007

ALBANY - State workers have fought for higher wages, better benefits and toxin-free offices, but on Thursday they found themselves in the unusual position of battling for bathroom privileges.

After a broken pipeline cut off water to sinks and toilets at the state's Harriman Office Campus, Labor Department employees were alternately fuming and laughing at a short-lived plan to bus them to Crossgates Mall if they needed a bathroom break. "They were telling us to take a bus to the bathroom," marveled Debbie Atwell, one of approximately 1,300 Labor Department employees who, after a restroom- free morning, were sent home at 12:30 Thursday afternoon.

The water crisis actually started shortly after 7 a.m., when early arrivals at the sprawling office campus realized the water main that feeds the campus had burst.

Soon after that, employees in buildings 8, 8a, and 4, which house the Department of Taxation and Finance and the Division of Military and Naval Affairs, were sent home.

But the massive Building 12 initially was hit with just lower water pressure, and repair workers thought they had the problem licked.

"We had the water restored at about 9:45," said Department of Labor spokesman Leo Rosales. "There was a rush to the bathroom that impacted the system," he added.

Others put it more graphically, noting some toilets either stopped working or started to back up.

So supervisors put out word that vans would ferry people the approximately two miles to Cross gates as well as other shopping spots and businesses for potty breaks.

No one actually used the toilet shuttle, however, although one van was about to leave when word came that Building 12 was also closing for the day at about 12:30 p.m. Buildings 7 and 22 had lower water pressure but didn't have to close.

Unionized employees of the Labor Department - which among other functions ensures safe and sanitary workplaces for New Yorkers - were not amused at the shuttle idea or that workers couldn't safely relieve themselves in-house.

"A number of the bathrooms overflowed," said Gary China, a representative of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), which represents about 800 Building 12 workers.

China and another rep, Angelique Bywater, were dispatched by the union to see what was going on. Bywater questioned the wisdom of trying to send people to places like shopping malls or the nearby SEFCU credit union, which was identified as another possible backup bathroom.

"How was everybody going to walk into SEFCU's bathroom?" she asked.

Betty McLaughlin, vice president of CSEA's Local 67O, said she wonders if the problem wouldn't have been resolved sooner if the new Labor commissioner, M. Patricia Smith, spent more time in the building rather than in New York City.

"Is it because our commissioner is not here full time?" she asked.

Rosales said Smith, who is from the city, spends most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in Building 12, with Mon days and Friday in New York City.

She was at a meeting in the Capitol downtown Thursday morning when the water problem arose, Rosales said, and made it to the building as the employees were being sent home.

Rick Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or by e-mail at