LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — Two New Jersey Lottery employees allegedly sickened by moldy Superstorm Sandy-damaged scratch-off tickets are looking to be compensated for some unlucky circumstances.
The employees, who filed worker's compensation claims, were exposed to approximately 400,000 stinky lottery tickets for more than six months in a warehouse at the state lottery headquarters in Lawrence and were asked to audit the tickets by their superiors.
An account of the conditions from one warehouse employee was reported shortly before the tickets were removed on May 9. (See NJ Lottery workers being sickened by moldy Sandy scratch-off tickets, employee claims, Lottery Post, May 2, 2013.) The worker complained of headaches and respiratory problems.
According to emails (some heavily redacted) from New Jersey Lottery management obtained through an open records request, the workers' union, CWA Local 1033, contacted officials about the conditions three times — Nov. 30, April 3 and April 18 — before the scratch-offs were eventually destroyed.
Meko Palmer, a representative from the union, said the state's handling of the situation was "careless."
"These workers work very hard," she said of the warehouse employees. "When these complaints just get unnoticed or not taken seriously, it's a disappointment."
Bill Quinn, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Treasury, which oversees the state's lottery, claims the contrary.
"Lottery managers as well as human resources and occupational safety and health professionals at the Treasury Department took these complaints seriously, responded promptly and took immediate action to protect lottery employees who were working in the warehouse from exposure to mold and any potential impact on their health," Quinn said. "After the CWA complained about the possible presence of mold on the tickets last November, all auditing work on the water-damaged tickets was suspended until the workers could be supplied with protective gear, including masks, suits and gloves, and trained on how to safely handle any boxes that contained water-damaged tickets."
Quinn added between December and early April, lottery warehouse workers and other employees completed the auditing work on the damaged tickets, something he describes as "an important objective for the lottery because the tickets represented $1 million in lost inventory to retailers"
"No complaints were made to lottery managers by workers or CWA representatives about exposure to mold on the water-damaged tickets or related health problems during this time," he said.
He then said plastic wrapping on two boxes containing the water damaged tickets had gotten loose or had been removed, which led to the April complaints.
The two Lottery employees filed the workers' comp claims for respiratory illness on April 10 from the exposure to the mold.
"They did not share any information about their health issues with lottery managers prior to filing their complaints," Quinn said. "Instead they retained an outside attorney to file the complaints with the New Jersey Department of Labor."
But the union was not alone in its concerns about the conditions of the warehouse.
The property manager of the building also contacted the state in mid-April wanting to find out when the tickets would be removed and if remediation work would be performed.
"As of today, you have fifteen (15) days to have the moldy tickets removed from the building," property manager Samuel Correa said in an email dated April 18 to New Jersey Lottery officials.
Correa did not return several calls for comment.
Sandy's destruction was joined by another natural disaster in the warehouse.
"Along with the water-damaged tickets from Superstorm Sandy, a small number of tickets that suffered water damage from Hurricane Irene in August 2011 were stored in the lottery's warehouse earlier this year," Quinn said, adding the bulk of the Irene tickets had previously been audited and destroyed. "The remaining tickets, some of which suffered water damage during Irene, were being held until the games they were issued against had reached the end of their market life and a final audit could be done. Those tickets were destroyed on May 9 at the same time as the tickets that had been damaged by Superstorm Sandy.
The employee, who initially contacted The Trentonian about the warehouse conditions, sent a sample of the mold on the store-damaged tickets for testing.
It came back with high levels of stachybotrys and aspergillus/penicillium, according to test results.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website states symptoms related to excessive mold exposure include asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis and allergies.
To remediate any health risks after the tickets were removed, the lottery had the warehouse and vault professionally cleaned by Monroe, N.J.-based Insurance Restoration Specialists. Air sampling tests were also conducted before and after the tickets were removed.
"Because the air sampling tests showed a small amount of Stachybotrys mold in the vault area of the warehouse, a second cleaning is also being planned," Quinn said. "In addition, because of the possibility that some airborne mold spores could have been trapped in the ceiling tiles in the warehouse, the lottery has arranged with the landlord of the warehouse to have those tiles replaced along with some sections of wallboard that suffered water damage because of roof leak and could provide an environment where mold could grow in the future. After this work is complete, another air sampling test will be conducted."
The price tag for the work is expected to cost more than $10,000.
When asked about the length of time it took from Superstorm Sandy to the May 9 removal date, Quinn said the auditing work requires advance planning and preparation.
"A lottery auditor must be present to observe the entire process of removal and destruction of the tickets to verify that the work has been done as required," Quinn said. "In addition, since the auditing work on the water-damaged tickets had been completed at this point and the boxes were wrapped in plastic and stored in the vault, there was no reason for them to be disturbed prior to May 9 and therefore no reason for Lottery managers to believe they would pose any risk to workers in the warehouse."