September 28, 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Yesterday, U.S. Senator Pete Ricketts (R-NE), a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, highlighted the financial and health costs of the federal government’s remote work policies. Ricketts called attention to a recent Inspector General report that found Legionella bacteria in the water systems of six General Services Administration (GSA) buildings across the country, including in North Platte, Nebraska. Ricketts questioned what GSA has done to protect public health in these buildings.
“I want to talk about another issue of great importance to my home state, which deals with the IG (Inspector General) releasing a memo last week alerting the GSA Public Building Service of the contamination of Legionella bacteria in six GSA-controlled buildings across the country,” Ricketts said. “Low occupancy levels in these buildings and subsequent water stagnation led to the growth of bacteria, the primary cause of Legionnaires disease. One of these buildings is located in North Platte, Nebraska. It’s a building that houses essential services including the Social Security Administration, the North Platte VA Clinic, the FBI, ICE, and several others… GSA’s Public Building Service currently has no requirement for testing potable water systems in their owned or leased buildings, even after they sat vacant and the water stood stagnant through the pandemic.”
Ricketts also shared how, as Governor of Nebraska, he worked with the leaders of various state agencies to reduce their office footprint and save taxpayers’ money. Consolidating agency office space, in one example, enabled a reduction of 60,000 square feet, saving Nebraska taxpayers $700,000 per year.
Ricketts called on the Committee to bring in agency heads for questioning to urge them to make right sizing federal office space a bigger priority.
Watch the video HERE.
Ricketts comments came during questioning of Nina Albert, Commissioner of the Public Building Service, and David Marroni, Acting Director of Physical Infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office in a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The hearing was entitled “Oversight of the General Services Administration: Examining the Federal Real Estate Portfolio.”
Senator Pete Ricketts: “Thank you very much for your leadership on this issue, Ranking Member Capito. And I also appreciate Chairman Carper bringing this up as well.
“It is far past time that we reevaluate the federal government’s workforce and infrastructure needs here. And certainly the testimony we heard today says that it’s long overdue. It’s been around for a while.
“But before we get into that, I actually wanted to talk about another issue of great importance to my home state, which deals with the Inspector General releasing a report last week in a memo alerting the GSA Public Building Service to the contamination of Legionella bacteria in 6 GSA-controlled buildings across the country.
“Low occupancy levels in these buildings and subsequent water stagnation led to the growth of bacteria, the primary cause of Legionnaires disease. One of these buildings is located in North Platte, NE. It’s a building that houses essential services, including the Social Security Administration, the North Platte VA Clinic, the FBI, ICE, and several others.
“Commissioner Albert, OIG notified your office of the need to test the water contamination before reopening the buildings that experienced lower occupancy during the pandemic in September of 2022. GSA’s Public Building Service currently has no requirement for testing potable water systems in their owned or leased buildings, even after they sat vacant and the water stood stagnant through the pandemic. In the week since this alert memo has been made, what has the GSA done to protect human health in the affected buildings?”
Commissioner Nina Albert: “Well, thank you for this question. As soon as we learned about Legionella bacteria in certain buildings, we immediately notified tenants. That’s first and foremost, just because human health is at risk. But we also contacted and are working very closely with the CDC and also ASHRAE, which assists with technical support, trying to identify what the appropriate response is and what we as building managers should be doing. The two things that are most critical for managing and moving water through and making sure that water quality is, is good is, one, flushing of the water systems. And so we are now systematically doing that throughout all of our buildings. In the past when buildings were occupied more readily, that water flushing activity would occur just more frequently. And it’s frankly as a result of the pandemic that stagnation has occurred. So now we are flushing throughout our systems to make sure that that water is moving.
“The other thing is, we’re testing in all of our buildings, which is the primary way of identifying if there’s any bacteria that’s forming. And when there is, making sure that the chlorine levels and other types of corrective chemical treatment to water, to move those, to eliminate that bacteria is dealt with. This is something that we are dealing with across our entire portfolio. We’ve also issued a notice and an alert to landlords of private leases where we lease space to make sure that they are also aware of what protocols we’re putting into place. These protocols that we are moving forward with are among the first in the nation. These are things that everybody is learning about for the first time. And so I think communication, testing and then corrective action is what we’ve been able to achieve in a very short period of time in response.”
Senator Ricketts: “So have you had any reports of any of the employees or visitors becoming sick in any of these facilities?”
Commissioner Albert: “We’re aware of one individual who was confirmed with Legionella’s infection and is being treated.”
Senator Ricketts: “Was that in Nebraska or was that someplace else?”
Commissioner Albert: “It’s not in Nebraska, it’s elsewhere.”
Senator Ricketts: “Okay, thanks. And you talked about flushing the buildings. Is that the only corrective action you’re going to need to do or is it going to be other things that you need to do with regard to the bacteria?”
Commissioner Albert: “Testing and flushing. Both of those things are what help us identify… Well the flushing is actually just moving things along and that we can do just as part of common practice, but the testing is really the new element that we’ve introduced into this.”
Senator Ricketts: “But you don’t think you’re going to have to do anything else as far as remediation other than just get the water moving through?”
Commissioner Albert: “When it’s identified, when there’s, when the tests reveal that there might be a presence of Legionella’s, we’re closing down. Legionella’s is a bacteria that forms around a fixture or around a particular element. It doesn’t necessarily spread to the whole building if you can isolate that fixture. And so where we identify, and many of our buildings are quite large, that there’s a presence, we’ll try and control it by managing in those particular areas where the bacteria is forming.”
Senator Ricketts: “Okay, great. Thank you very much. Obviously, this is something that we’re going to follow up with you with regard to the North Platte office and just making sure we keep in touch with regard to what the cleanup is going to be and making sure we’re looking out for the health and safety of the folks that work there as well as the visitors coming there. Ranking Member Capito. Chairman Carper’s back – Okay, very good. Are we going to do a second round of questions?
Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE): “I believe so, yes.”
Round Two of Questioning
Senator Ricketts: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The Federal Property Management has been on the high-risk list for GAO for 20 years. So this is an ongoing issue, not just an issue created by the pandemic. And certainly, remote work is one of the contributors to the lack of utilization of office space. And I agree with you, Ranking Member Capito, remote work should be a tool, not an expectation of people, and it needs to be properly managed just like everything else with regard to our space.
“When I was Governor of Nebraska, we actually put together a strategy for our real estate. We worked for our State Building Division to come up with that. And what we focused on was consolidating our like-serviced agencies together to create a one-stop shop for people, but also to create synergies in their work output. So for example, we put the Department of Economic Development, Department of Agriculture, Department of Environment and Energy, other boards and commissions all together in one spot so that we could promote the interest of the State of Nebraska.
“We developed the Fallbrook office space. And by doing that, we were able to consolidate, you know, put those agencies over there and then consolidate our Department of Health and Human Services into one building in our downtown location to be able to provide better services there.
“Overall, that actually reduced our footprint by 60,000 square feet, saving Nebraska taxpayers $700,000 a year. And now we’re hearing of course from your report that 75% of the office space and 17 agencies here in Washington, DC are unused office space.
“Mr. Marroni, it sounds like your recommendations would be in line with what we did here at the state of Nebraska. Is that a fair statement to try and bring like service agencies together?”
Acting Director David Marroni: “I certainly think that would be one option for agencies to consider is consolidation, sharing space. Those should all be on the table.”
Senator Ricketts: “Well, we talked about the $7 billion. Is that roughly right, what we’re spending every year on this office space?”
Acting Director Marroni: “On government wide.”
Senator Ricketts: “Yeah, government wide. What do you think the cost savings would be if we could address the issues with regard to the unutilized office space and some of the other things we just talked about?”
Acting Director David Marroni: “I don’t have a specific number, but it certainly could be substantial. We spend a lot of money operating, maintaining and leasing facilities in this country. You could save a lot if you if you get rid of extra space.”
Senator Ricketts: “So, when you say a lot, is that 10% or do you think 50%, what do you think?”
Acting Director Marroni: “It’s hard to give that an estimate but substantial, depending on agency decisions.”
Senator Ricketts: “Okay. And Commissioner, you talked a little bit about your role in this, but it sounds like, from what you said, it’s really the agencies that have to drive these plans. Is that fair that the agencies have to come up and say, hey, I need, this is my utilization or the space I need and the agencies have to drive this. You don’t have the ability to tell agencies, hey, you got too much space, get out.”
Acting Director Albert: “Well, we don’t have the ability to tell them what to do. But it is a partnership and it’s often done in collaboration. Not all agencies are created equal. There’s very large agencies that have big real estate staff within the agency and they are creating their own plans. There’s other agencies that rely on GSA’s expertise. So, it’s a mix.”
Senator Ricketts: “So you’ve helped facilitate it, but it really has to be the leadership of the agency to drive this. Is that what I’m understanding? Is that fair?”
Acting Director Albert: “It is. But if I can just share a couple things that GSA has been doing, particularly since the pandemic, so that you know kind of what the solutions are going forward or more on the forefront of people’s minds. Because there’s been a lot of evolution about how people are using space. We created a workplace innovation lab. We’ve had more than 120 different tours by a variety of different agencies, even agencies that we don’t manage space for. For example, the DoD coming to see what the new workplace models are. We’re launching federal coworking spaces in six locations across the country so that agencies can see what a more flexible workplace looks like. Or that they can work out of our federal coworking spaces rather than relying on leases. So we’re looking at new models and partnering with agencies so they can see what the future could entail. It’s also a fantastic change management and employee engagement tool because we’ve made the capital investment in those types of spaces. Agencies can bring teams to work through them and see how they want to work in the future and try and accelerate that learning and you know, get over that communication hump as to what these benefits of consolidation or working in different work modes look like.”
Senator Ricketts: “It seems to me, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member, that we ought to be doing is bringing in the heads of these agencies, especially the biggest offenders, and having them explain why they haven’t put together a real estate plan to consolidate if they’re at 25% utilization.
And really put the onus on them to come back with the plan and drive this because this has been a problem for 20 years. It’s not happening. And if it’s the agencies that have to look at the plan, which makes sense. It was as Governor my leadership that drove our plan. It wasn’t happening before. We need to have these agency heads start working on this plan and that’s who we should get in here and ask them why they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing with regard to right-sizing their organization and coming up with the plans they need to address for what a remote work or whatever was going on. So anyway, thank you very much. I appreciate it.”
Chairman Carper: “Senator Capito was going next. Let me just say: Senator Ricketts and I are members of a small, elite group of Senators, recovering governors. And we begin a lot of our sentences: ‘When I was Governor of Delaware’ or whatever. Our colleagues get tired of it. But I think we’re on to something here. Again, earlier I said to find out what works, do more of that. So (let’s) see what we can learn from what you’ve done in your state.”