Faster than a spreading leak, more powerful than a malfunctioning boiler, able to fix problems in a single attempt. Look! Down in the basement! It’s not some cartoon character, it’s
The Super (Man!)
“My chemical guy was here this week. He says my chemicals are just a little high. I have to blow them out twice as long for one month. They’re high but not low – so nothing is going to happen. He just wants them perfect,” Tom Campbell says into the phone. He is not discussing a chronic medical condition but actually talking about boilers with Tom Clark, resident manager at a building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Campbell is a superintendent at an 85-unit co-op at 102 West 75th Street. The two call each other regularly.
“Whenever he’s got renovations in his building, I call him and say, ‘You’d better make sure to do this,’” he explains afterward, citing an involved procedure. “Then, when I have renovation jobs, he’ll say, ‘You’d better make sure to do this....’” Campbell adds: “He’s got 14 guys working for him. I’ve got one porter. But I tell him he’s full of baloney. He’s [called a resident manager but he’s really] a super, the same as everyone else. If any complaints come down, they don’t ask for the resident manager; they ask for the super!”
Right now, there are five renovations going on in Campbell’s building, managed by John J. Grogan & Associates; another major renovation starts next week, and, in about two months, the co-op is going to be embarking on a huge project: renovating and rewiring every hallway and the lobby. Campbell is a vital part of all that. In the demolition stage, he’s in and out of one apartment throughout the day to make sure no supporting walls are touched and only the approved work is undertaken. He’s also involved in weekly project meetings in every apartment that’s undergoing alterations.
If anyone has the keys to the castle – both literally and figuratively – it is the superintendent. He may be the only one who knows the location of the gas turn-off valve; where the water supply pipes from the street actually enter the building; which steam pipes are still clad in asbestos; and how to empty the rooftop tank without wasting gallons of increasingly expensive water. If that isn’t enough to make him a VIP, consider that he’s probably the sole person who will get out of bed at four o’clock in the morning if the boiler suddenly shuts down.
Joseph Shkreli is typical of the best of that breed. He has been the superintendent for about five years at a 37-unit cooperative in Great Neck, N.Y. He started as a summer relief porter in the city and gradually moved up to become a handyman. He learned at a good school: the one where hard knocks are passed out like textbooks. “Whenever the super would do anything, he would take me with him, show me what to do.” As a handyman, he learned the basics from assisting his mentor, but, as a superintendent, he realized he needed to know more. So, he took courses.
It’s the way many supers have acquired their “Superman” skills: by learning on the job and then expanding their knowledge base by taking classes. Shkreli has studied plumbing, refrigeration, and air conditioning and recently completed a class on heating. “It’s a fabulous course,” he says with enthusiasm. “Anyone in the [staff] end of the building should have a working knowledge of how the building is operated.”
The more your super knows about building systems, the better off your property will be. By the same token, the more the board knows about the care and feeding of its building’s superintendent, the better off everyone will be.
What should a board expect from its super? Of course, that depends on the size and type of building – a 40-unit apartment house has different needs than a 350-unit high-rise – but there are some basics.
“You’ve got to let people know what is expected of them and what is expected of other staff,” notes Glen Stoltz, webmaster and a key figure in the Superintendents Technical Association (STA) who, after over 20 years as a superintendent, recently began a new career as a boiler mechanic.
He strongly recommends having a written job description, adding that it’s also very useful to give such a list to prospective supers “so that they know before they’re hired what’s going to be expected of them.” Managing agents will often be able to provide a basic list of duties that can be tailored to fit particular buildings. Stoltz suggests asking your current superintendent to write down what he does as a starting point.
Many boards, however, are concerned that a written list of duties will allow a super to decline to do work not included. Peter Finn, an attorney with the Realty Advisory Board (RAB), points out that the standard union contract requires that employees cooperate with management to facilitate the efficient operation of the building. That generally covers any gaps that may be found in the written list of duties. As long as a superintendent is not being directed to do something illegal or dangerous, he has to comply.
The manager generally handles hiring, but boards in self-managed buildings don’t have that luxury (and those with managers may want to get involved anyway). So, what do you do?
To find good candidates, talk to the maintenance and repair men who come into your building; they often know when a super in another building is looking to move; ask your management company what you have to pay to get a good super. Talk to Peter Roach, president, and Peter Grech, past president of the Supers Technical Association or to Mike MacGowan, president of the Manhattan Resident Managers Club.
MacGowan, who is himself the resident manager of a 240-unit building and has a staff of 15, advises: “We have supers that are members that are out of work sometimes; or sometimes we have some guys who just want to make a change – sometimes boards change and they don’t get along, or maybe the management company changes. I just got a call from a board president the other day, and I gave her a couple of supers that are being interviewed for the job.” Look at the resumes posted by supers on the STA website, and check out the want ads in the New York Times Sunday edition.
Once the list of candidates have been narrowed down, some buildings will take the trouble to visit the super’s place of work if he is currently in a job. Even seeing the way he organizes his office can provide a lot of information not available any other way. MacGowan, however, cautions that it could be very awkward for the super if (as is probable) his current employers don’t know he’s looking for another job. If he is not currently working, reference letters from his previous employer may not be that useful. If, after all your efforts, the person you select doesn’t work out, make sure you move to fire him within the six-month probationary period when he can be dismissed without resort to the union.
What kind of additional training should you require (if any)? Again, that depends, but with the constant changes in technology and increased maintenance requirements, you may want to consider sending your super back to school.
Find out what he knows. “Does he have plumbing experience, electrical experience, can he do a lot of these half-hour jobs so you don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars to bring in a plumber or electrician every time?” says Anton Cerulli, director of management at Lawrence Properties. “Can he run the boiler effectively -– meaning, when he’s in the boiler room doing a lot of the work, can he manually run it to save oil?”
Many supers attended classes on the city’s new lead paint requirements. Apart from that, requiring outside training for the staff has not been a priority for most co-op and condo buildings. Experts say it probably should be. One reason is that some insiders warn that the city is about to enforce a 1968 Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD) requirement that live-in supers in residential buildings with more than nine units be certified.Margie Russell, executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers, reports that in the next few months most supers will have to go back to school. Or else the buildings they work in could be facing fines.
According to Russell, who has been working with HPD on this issue, some 100,000 area buildings may not be in compliance. Russell says that the city government was alarmed by increases in lead poisoning and carbon monoxide problems in New York City housing stock, leading HPD to re-train some 400 code enforcement personnel in lead and carbon monoxide laws as well as in recognizing superintendent competency.
“I don’t know that there was a turning point incident,” Russell notes. “It was, I think, two things coming together at the same time: the lead safety work practices and HPD’s effort to clean up violations in many buildings. They came to the conclusion that the most violations were in buildings [in which the superintendents had] very little training in those areas.”
An HPD spokesperson, while not disputing Russell’s comments, says that HPD has “always enforced” the law and that rather than cracking down, HPD would prefer to say that it is trying to “make things easier for landlords and managing agents. One thing we’re working on now is this: in the code it says that a landlord has to certify a [superintendent’s] competency if they don’t take the course. So, landlords would typically have to write us a letter saying that the [super] is competent. To make it easier, we’ve created a certificate of competency form that could be filled out by the landlord and just submitted instead of a letter.”
All of which means that they must take classes or the co-op.condo will have to swear that the superintendent is qualified to run all the building systems. Do you want to take that responsibility?
So, how much do you pay? It’s way, way below what they should be paid in many cases, notes Stoltz. If you want to do the right thing, you could start by looking at the four-year contract that was signed in April 2006 by the employers, represented by the Realty Advisory Board, and the employees, represented by the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ.
Read through the entire 106 pages of the agreement and you will not find anything on basic pay scales for superintendents. There is nothing. The agreement does specify, however, that you cannot pay a new superintendent less than you have been paying your old one, unless that original wage included additional pay because of his years of service. That establishes a baseline for most union buildings.
“It’s all according to the needs,” says David Baron, principal of Metro Management, who adds that salaries “run the gamut. A good super is hard to come by, and, when you find a good, qualified person, you are going to pay him above scale. One of our supers handles a very large development and his salary is $75,000. In other buildings, we have supers that are earning in the mid-fifties and the low sixties, and I have some supers that are earning in the thirties.”
“At a rough guess, I’d say the average salaries run from $700 to $2,000 a week ($36,400 to $104,000 a year), depending on the size of the building, its location, the number of employees, and, clearly, what the building is prepared to pay,” says Finn.
If you’re a small co-op, say 40 units, adds Cerulli, “you’re looking at the $40,000 range. It depends on the size of the building, the duties, and how many people he’s got to supervise. If you’ve got 300 units and a staff of twenty-something people, you’re looking at the higher end in the $80,000 to $90,000 range.”
However, that’s the basic salary. The overall cost to the building has to include benefits (a total of about $14,000 a year in a union building and whatever is negotiated in non-union properties) plus government employment taxes. The union requires the employer to provide a rent-free apartment (rarely less than a two-bedroom) to any superintendent required to live there plus free utilities and telephone.
In winter months, particularly, the presence of a super on the premises can make a tremendous contribution to the well-being of residents in terms of reliable hot water and heat. In high-end structures, the apartment alone can add to overall costs by $3,000 or more every month. Buildings that attract experienced, good superintendents often provide additional benefits in the form of parking spaces, health-club memberships, and even additional vacation time.
Supers also earn extra money by providing services for residents that fall outside their job description. In this area, Baron reports a developing trend: “I’m finding that more and more buildings now are discussing whether or not they want to permit private work to continue in the apartments because it’s a very hard thing to regulate. A number of buildings have said, ‘No private work.’”
Even if the job is done on the super’s personal time, “it becomes a problem when the private work goes bad and [owners] look to the condo or co-op as the ultimate guarantor of the work,” Baron continues.
Some properties have adopted a charge-back system. “We manage a 750-unit garden development in Queens,” Baron says. “They have a system in place where they will [have the super] do work in your apartment – small plumbing, electrical, plaster work, tile, floor work -– things that a person will need done and just doesn’t know who to call. They charge a certain amount per hour for labor, with a guaranteed minimum the first half-hour and then they bill in 15-minute intervals. You’re probably talking under $30 for the hour, so it’s very reasonable. Parts are at cost. And since this is part of the [super’s] normal work responsibilities, the work is done on the building’s time.”
In some cases, buildings have introduced restrictions on private work because “the system was being abused or something happened in an apartment that created a flood or damage,” notes Baron. If supers are depending on the work as a way to earn additional money, there are other ways of providing this. “For example, rather than call in a painter for a hallway that needs painting, ask the superintendent if he wishes to paint it on his day off and negotiate a price with him. That’s very commonly done.”
what if the super doesn’t work out? Firing someone is never easy, but, with a superintendent, it is especially difficult thanks to union rules intended to protect members from abuse.
In a non-union property, employees are hired and fired easily enough (the main problem is often getting the super out of his apartment in the building). However, reasonable arrangements can often be negotiated with severance pay and with letters of reference as bargaining chips. The union agreement specifies the number of weeks’ severance pay required: after 11 years, it’s a flat 15 weeks’ pay. You can’t offer less.
Is it too late to fire someone who has worked in your building for 15 or 20 years? “Absolutely not,” says Cerulli. “It just means a higher severance [settlement] when you fire him. I’ve seen numbers go from $10,000 to $15,000 to $25,000 for a 15-year super, depending on how badly the co-op or condo wants to terminate this and get on with their life.”
In a union building, it’s essential to build a paper trail and give the super documented opportunities to correct items that are problematic. It’s a process that may culminate in suspension and may take several months. RAB attorney Finn notes that he has seen a change in the union’s attitude toward firing in recent years.
“The union is choosing not to bring as many cases to arbitration as it did before. By law, the union is obligated to investigate if an employee brings a grievance to them, but, based on their findings and on the building’s proper handling of the process, they may decide not to arbitrate the building’s decision.”
Arbitration is actually conducted like a trial, but the arbitrator has more latitude than a judge in making his or her decision. “The arbitrator deals with the issue of whether or not the employee was properly discharged and is empowered to do one of three things: say there was no reason to discharge and reinstate with full back pay; say there was reason to discipline and award reinstatement with no back pay; or say the person was properly discharged and, most times, award the severance pay that is listed in the contract.”
From the super’s point of view, he’s in a better negotiating position before arbitration. But, if his case does go to arbitration, the proceedings are in total confidence. Once in arbitration, Finn notes that “usually the building wins” because of a very important part of the contract.
“It says that, in the event of an arbitration, the arbitrator is directed to look at the need for cooperation between the employer and the super. That recognizes the superintendent is unlike any other building service employee. There is an understanding that such items as courtesy and respect and cooperation are very much a part of his job.”
-Three Super Stories-
“I used to practice in my own apartment. I took the faucets apart, changed the washers.”
Tom Campbell was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He is a wiry, energetic, 55-year old who speaks with a toned-down Scottish burr that probably labels him as a retrograde Scot because you don’t have to be a native Glaswegian to understand him. He took the job at 102 West 75th Street “because this is a union building, [offering] more money, better benefits – eye, dental, medical, sick days – there’s no comparison.”
Campbell was working as a carpenter in the U.S. after four years of apprenticeship back in Scotland. Then a friend, Tom Clark, “asked me if I’d be interested in a super’s job.” Campbell hadn’t any experience in most aspects of the job, but he found a good place to start his training. “I used to practice in my own apartment. I took the faucets apart, changed the washers.” He taught himself.
Eight years later, he gets offers of other jobs. “But I wouldn’t take them. Because I love the people in this building.”
“The super has to make sure that everything runs right.”
For many supers, the relationship with their boiler is a peculiar love-hate extension of their private lives. Anthony Poole, 40 and from Arkansas, is superintendent of a 64-unit co-op at 31 East 12th Street. His building, managed by Buchbinder & Warren, has a 1983 vintage boiler that he claims is “awesome. It takes about ten minutes for it to warm up the water” for 12 stories plus a penthouse. Every Monday, Poole performs a top-to-bottom check-up on his boiler. Like every super, he knows the little tricks that keep things running smoothly. He sprays the oil strainer with WD40 when he cleans it. “It stops the oil from building up on it. This way, next time that I come in here, it doesn’t get bumped up.” Translation: it oils the wheels!
Poole has a one-bedroom apartment but he runs a construction business on the side and is more than rewarded by the board’s accommodation of his business needs. Of course, that works for the building as well. Every winter, Poole embarks on a building-wide clean-up and renovation. If he finds cracked floor tiles in the elevator or dried-out grout, the co-op gets the repairs free of charge.
“A lot of buildings feel like they’re safer if, when their super leaves, they hire one of their doormen or porters,” he notes. “Sometimes that’s a problem because [the doorman or porter is] limited [in what they know]. You have to hire a superintendent who knows that this is a business – that the building itself is a business. He has to make sure that it runs right, that everything runs the way it’s supposed to run. That’s how I try to look at it.”
“If we see a problem, we knock it out. It doesn’t blossom.”
Joe Shkreli (pronounced shkoreli), 30, tends a 37-unit co-op in Great Neck, Long Island. Originally from Michigan, he’s only five years in his current position and works alone. He keeps a 24-year-old boiler running like clockwork. “It looks like crap but it does its job. It’s virtually maintenance-free because we do such a good job in upkeeping. If we do find a problem, we knock it out; we don’t wait for a problem to blossom.”
We? “When I say, ‘we,’ I mean the board as well. Whenever you do anything in the building, you want to make sure you have everybody on board with you. Otherwise, they might not understand why you called in a boiler mechanic to fix a tube. When you sit them down and explain to them that this and this can happen and this can cost us x amount of dollars if we don’t repair it now, they’re more likely to agree with you and say, ‘Joe, just get it done.’”
He has the philosophy that, “technically, I’m here to save them money. Because I watch their money just as good as they do.” Most boards know very well that a good super can have a big impact on maintenance costs and even their outlays on capital repairs.
“If you saw my apartment, you’d drop to the ground,” says Shkreli. With his wife and (pictured above) two small children, he’s very comfortable in a two-bedroom unit, has hefty bonuses, and enjoys ample vacation time. But the building obviously benefits significantly from the relationship with Shkreli.
“Saturdays and Sundays are technically my days off, but I still have to collect the garbage, which is fine. The way I look at it, the building is my ship. So if I’m going to sit there and nitpick at what I do and don’t do, my ship is eventually going to sink.”