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An Inside Job

The setting: Manhattan, a late afternoon in spring, the Upper East Side. Two building staff maintenance men are moving a refrigerator from an apartment on the third floor to a floor above it. The building is a walk-up, so they are lugging the refrigerator, secured to a dolly, slowly and laboriously, up the stairs. The man on the top, whom we shall call Larry, asks his colleague, Ernesto, to stop for a moment so he can check the time. Ernesto obliges and looks at his watch, informing Larry that it is exactly 4:30. Larry nods.

"Four-thirty? Then it's quitting time."

And without another word, he leaves, abandoning his colleague to deal with the refrigerator as best he can.

This may sound like an anti-union joke, but it was said to be absolutely true by the president of a management company. It was intended to illustrate how literally many building employees take the limits on their jobs — whether imposed by the union, the co-op board, or the building management company.

One of the trickiest areas of a building staff member's responsibilities is doing work for shareholders within their apartments. For instance, if the superintendent works on your stopped-up sink for 45 minutes, is that part of his job — or should you be paying him extra? If the handymen paint your apartment, should you pay them and how much?

In considering the creation of a policy, boards should look at the question of convenience. Most shareholders would prefer a staff member do odd jobs inside their apartments. As Steve Miller, president of Plymouth Management Group, points out, residents are more comfortable letting people they already know into their homes, and tend to trust their super and staff more than a stranger. Access to the apartment is also easier for a building employee, as some boards require residents to leave a copy of their keys with the superintendent in case of an emergency. Most of the time, building staff are able to handle situations that might arise in shareholders' apartments, and their familiarity with the structural components is a plus.

Nonetheless, there are negatives. One of them is that the employees are not experts in everything. Miller recalls a leak in a shareholder's apartment. When the site manager asked the superintendent to have a look, he reported that it was due to the grouting in the apartment on the floor above. When the grouting was fixed and the leak still didn't stop, the super was called in a second time. When he still couldn't provide answers, an outside contractor was called in. The professional opened the ceiling in the apartment below and found a sweaty pipe. He solved the problem by adding insulation around the offending pipe.

Beyond the question of expertise, there is the issue of exploitation. Who is responsible for what and when do staff members get paid extra? There are two categories of items within a shareholder's apartment: those for which the building is responsible, and those for which the shareholder is responsible. Alvin Wasserman, director of Fairfield Property Services, says that everything inside the four walls is the shareholders' responsibility: paint, apartment plumbing, and any visible pipes. "If you can see it with your eyes or touch it with your hands, then it's your problem," he notes. The leaky ceiling pipe fell into the former category, because it was underneath the sheet rock.

The need for a policy regarding building staff arises when the problem to be solved lies within the shareholder's home. When a building staff member is on duty, his salary is being paid by the entire co-op, theoretically to work in the common areas of the building, used by all residents. But it is not uncommon for a handyman to slip into a shareholder's apartment and pick up a few extra dollars for fixing a leaky faucet or propping up a tottering shelf.

The clearest way to deal with such questions, Miller says, is to have a policy regarding such jobs, because then both sides know what is expected. However, all co-ops are different, and some don't have such a policy. Miller believes it is a good idea to encourage building staff to perform repairs in shareholders' apartments because they know the building and will have to live with the results of their work. In addition, using outside contractors is generally more expensive for shareholders. He also expressed concern that the staff member be adequately compensated, and not be exploited.

Anita Sapirman, president of Saparn Realty, agrees: in most of her buildings, the superintendent and staff can do extra work on their off-hours, and there is a strict policy that supers do not take money directly from shareholders. Saparn's larger buildings use work order forms. The form is sent to the co-op board, and the shareholder is charged for the work done. Only two buildings Saparn manages forbid extra work by staff, simply because the boards do not want to be involved in any possible liability issues.

Wasserman says that any additional work in a Fairfield building happens after the normal workday. Typically, if a shareholder needs private work done, it must be performed after-hours or on weekends; the co-op board will then pay the employee and bill the shareholder. This arrangement is spelled out clearly in the building's offering plan.

Most plans also require that owners who hire contractors provide a certificate of insurance policy in addition to the insurance carried by the co-op. Staff members may not carry such insurance, and in some cases a botched job could become a legal liability.

Boards should have their supers keep tabs on their staff members. Most managers agree that every building should have a work order system stating clearly what work has been done, as well as starting and ending time for each job.

Without such safeguards,Wasserman says, the situation is "fraught with danger." A staff member could, on the co-op's time, begin developing a "practice" of his own, neglecting work in the common areas and spending too much time working inside shareholders' apartments. There could be lawsuits for work improperly completed, or for injuries sustained on the job.

On the plus side, Wasserman feels that allowing staff to do odd jobs inside apartments adds to staff morale by adding to their incomes and also offers residents convenient and less expensive "inside jobs."

When confronting these issues, experts agree that common sense should rule. Otherwise, you would all find ourselves, metaphorically at least, in Ernesto's position: left alone in a stairwell, balancing a refrigerator on your back. One can't help wondering what Larry found waiting for him in his locker the next morning, but whatever it was, it probably smelled as though it had been left in an unplugged refrigerator for a few days.

 

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