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In years past, workers in the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) have complained to Phoebea Queen-Addison, a supervisor in the investigations division, that they were being attacked by bugs. They spoke of rashes, itches, bites, and all kinds of nastiness. They said the bugs were small and hard to identify.
Queen-Addison, according to the aggrieved, told them to bug off. “She said we were bringing them from home,” says a DCRA employee who requested anonymity. (Queen-Addison denies pooh-poohing the complaints of her co-workers.)
Queen-Addison recently got her payback. Last summer, the bugs visited her office on DCRA’s 8th floor. They did to her what they’d done to her co-workers. They bit her. They made her itch. They drove her crazy.
“It was all over my body. Everywhere,” recalls Queen-Addison, referring to her rash. “Even in the wrong locations.”
The itching became so intense, she says, that she nearly became hysterical. To save herself from the madhouse, Queen-Addison consulted a dermatologist, who conducted “a number of tests.” Gradually, the rash subsided.
In September 1997, the Business Regulatory Reform Commission released a sheaf of recommendations on reinventing DCRA, by far the most decrepit arm of a dysfunctional government. One of the proposals advocated a simple way of ditching the agency’s legacy: move. The No. 1 impediment to reforming DCRA, said commission members, was the agency’s Happy Days-era technology. Staffers could never serve the public as long as they had to sift through an estimated millions of documents on file in back rooms. And the department’s hovel at 614 H St. NW wasn’t wired for the computer age.
Of course, agency employees had found much more compelling reasons than automation to abandon their 28-year-old building.
Any seasoned pest-control guy would tell you that the DCRA building is a logical hostel for vermin. The area around the building, which is just around the corner from the MCI Center, has been a playground for jackhammers, backhoes, and bulldozers for the past three years. That kind of disruption sends rats in search of a refuge.
And the building has plush accommodations. Grime on the stairwells has overwhelmed the bright-colored paint; the carpets are musty, rumpled, and holey; and building maintenance is spotty. “A lot of people who are getting fines are coming down to the basement,” says a DCRA inspector. “We say, ‘Yeah, you gotta clean your building.’ They say, ‘Yeah, well, what about your building?’”
None of those considerations, however, prepared fifth-floor workers for an incident in early November. In the middle of the workday, a rat scampered across the floor. “We couldn’t believe it came out during work hours,” says a DCRA employee of the nocturnal Norwegian species.
A siege mentality gripped the building a few days later after a worker on the same floor found a pack of gum in his desk drawer masticated to smithereens. Skittish DCRA workers are hoping the culprits were the two rats caught in traps on the fourth floor later in the month.
“Rats are running all over the place,” says a DCRA staffer.
DCRA communications aide Lyn Alexander confirmed the rat problem but said that there have been no sightings in the past couple of weeks.
Employees say the rat sightings are more recent than the bug infestation, which some trace back to 1994. According to Queen-Addison, pest-control experts at the Department of Public Works took samples of the agency’s bugs and found three distinct species: mosquitoes, cigar beetles, and the springtail, a wingless pest that, according to Webster’s, is “able to leap great distances by the sudden release of a forklike, abdominal appendage.” If that description alone isn’t enough to inspire a long coffee break, certainly these tales are:
•One employee claims to have lost 15 to 20 pairs of shoes to the bugs, which lurk in the insoles and then pop out to bite him. In a vain effort to banish the pesky pests, he even cooked the shoes in his microwave oven and stuck them in the freezer. “It’s almost laughable, to the point where it’s driving me crazy. It’s been going on for years,” says the employee, who has blanketed his home and car with flea-and-tick spray.
•A man who works in the building reportedly got a rash on his chest and transferred it to his wife. “It’s probably from the way they sleep,” says a co-worker.
•After getting bitten on the foot, an employee woke up one morning to find the afflicted foot swollen to double its normal size. “You couldn’t see the veins or tendons anymore. It was smooth skin across the top of the foot,” he says. His doctor prescribed a remedy and warned him that another attack could prompt anaphylactic shock.
•A compliance official brought her scourge home with her, where it eventually migrated to a man with a compromised immune system. “It was awful and it was horrible,” says the official, who says she had to disinfect her entire house and office.
Praying for relief from a higher authority, DCRA staffers this year brought their plight to the attention of Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett. According to Alexander, Barnett ordered building maintenance to continue spraying for bugs and disinfecting problem areas.
The maintenance folks will have to do a lot of spraying to satisfy Jacqueline Wright, a legal examiner in the agency’s occupational licensing office. Although Wright says she had never before been afflicted with asthma, she began experiencing shortness of breath and nosebleeds on the job earlier this year. “Every time I’d take a step, I couldn’t breathe,” recalls Wright. In late June, she went to visit a relative in Hampton, Va. Shortly after arriving, she says she checked into a hospital, where doctors treated her for four days. “They said I had environmental asthma,” says Wright, noting that the environment in question was neither her home nor the outdoors.
Wright says her reaction to DCRA has cost her 200 hours of unpaid leave. She believes she works in a “sick building.” “It’s worse than The X-Files,” she says.
The District’s corps of occupational health officials has probed working conditions in the building a couple of times this decade, according to DCRA inspector Vincent Ford. However, DCRA has never received any notices from the occupational health office regarding worker health, says Alexander.
Much of the itching could have been avoided if DCRA had completed its move to new offices at 941 North Capitol St. on time. The work force was initially promised new digs by October 1998, although DCRA brass insist the target date was January 1999. Whatever the promise, the reality is that the move won’t occur until March, at the earliest.
Given DCRA’s record on routine agency business, a mammoth undertaking like a move could take the agency until next summer. That’s when the bugs bite the hardest, staffers say.
“This is a horrible building. It’s demoralizing and deplorable,” says DCRA Director Lloyd Jordan.CP