Capitol Hill employees and visitors with disabilities face severe challenges when they need physical access to Library of Congress buildings, according to the Office of Compliance’s annual report on the “State of the Congressional Workplace.”
None of the curb ramps on sidewalks surrounding the Madison, Jefferson and Adams buildings complied with American With Disabilities Act accessibility standards during fiscal 2012 exterior inspections. Bringing them up to code would cost approximately $1.7 million.
But the steep slopes and wide joint spaces between squares of sidewalk outside the LOC only scratch the surface of the many structural barriers that exist on Capitol Hill for people with disabilities. Other barriers include “manually-operated doors that require too great a force to open” and “doorways too narrow to enable wheelchair access,” according to the report released Thursday.
The OOC is charged with enforcing a dozen workplace laws, including the ADA, on all legislative branch properties — 18 million square feet in the D.C. metro area alone. Created when Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, the OOC ensures that the 30,000 legislative branch employees receive many of the same rights and protections as employees in the private sector and the federal executive branch.
“The OOC has a broad mandate — advancing workplace rights, safety, health and public access in the legislative branch of the federal government — and minimal resources,” Executive Director Barbara Sapin wrote in a statement included in the report.
With deficit cutting in mind, appropriators slashed the OOC budget by 6.7 percent in fiscal 2011 and 6.4 percent in fiscal 2012, leaving the agency with limited inspection resources during the 112th Congress. As a result, the OOC’s Office of General Counsel “focused its ADA inspections on the areas that would be of most concern to the public,” the authors explain. For the period of Oct. 1, 2011 through Sept. 30, 2012, that target was the LOC.
The reduced operating budget also forced the OOC to retool its Occupational Safety and Health Act inspections, shifting from a comprehensive check-up on the Capitol campus to a “risk-based” survey of congressional workplaces focused on “hazards that pose the greatest risk of fatalities and injuries to workers and building occupants,” including high-voltage areas, machine shops and boiler rooms.
Budget cuts forced the agency to reduce the number of days spent inspecting the landscaping operations of the Architect of the Capitol’s Capitol Grounds Division. Those workers prune and trim a variety of plants across the AOC’s 30 acres of landscape beds and use equipment to mow, seed, fertilize, lime and spray more than 90 acres of Capitol Hill turf-grass.
The OOC also had to scrap plans to inspect divisions of the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and plans to perform a progress review of the Hazard Communication Programs at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus. Additionally, the OOC reports it was “unable to inspect Member offices or administrative spaces across the campus.”
“At a certain point, you can’t do more with less,” OOC Deputy Director Scott Mulligan said Thursday.
Mulligan told CQ Roll Call that completing inspections to the standard of the federal executive branch and private industry is incredibly labor intensive and has become cost-prohibitive for the OOC.
“What we’d really like to do and what serves the public best and the Capitol employees best is the more comprehensive wall-to-wall inspections, where you are able to go from one side of the building to the other side of the building and look at many different program areas,” Mulligan said. “However, from budget constraints, it’s not a fiscally-appropriate way to go about it now.”
The report highlights two milestone safety improvements achieved in cooperation with the AOC during fiscal 2012: Fire hazards in the Longworth House Office Building, first identified during a March 2000 inspection, were resolved and a five-year, multi-million dollar project to fix life-threatening hazards in the Capitol Power Plant utility tunnels was completed.
“Hazardous conditions in the tunnels included asbestos exposure, temperatures exceeding 160 degrees Fahrenheit, falling concrete, insufficient emergency exits and an inadequate emergency communications system, among others,” the agency reported. The total price tag for the project, slightly more than $173 million, was 40 percent below the initial estimate and the project was completed one month ahead of schedule.
The OOC also revamped its operations for enforcing workplace fairness.
“As a part of streamlining the services provided by the agency, we renegotiated contracts and implemented a ‘flat rate’ for our mediation service providers,” Sapin writes. “This change allowed us to control costs while affording opportunities for mediators to work more efficiently and effectively in facilitating the early resolution of disputes.”
The OOC provides dispute resolution services nationwide for employees with claims of discrimination, harassment and other violations of workplace rights laws. Employee claims of discrimination in congressional agencies have more than doubled compared to five years ago, from 65 in fiscal 2008, to 134 in fiscal 2012.
Most of those claims involved race, followed by gender and pregnancy discrimination, age and disability. Employees, former employees of, or applicants to the U.S. Capitol Police filed 43 percent of the requests for counseling related to their claims, and 37 percent were filed against the Architect of the Capitol.
The OOC reports that the vast majority of cases were resolved confidentially under the Congressional Accountability Act’s dispute resolution process,
Sapin points out that the agency lowered costs without diminishing professional services. She writes that fiscal 2012 “proved to be another year of demonstrated commitment by the staff of the OOC.”
Full reports on the Occupational Health and Safety and ADA inspections will be released later in 2013.