How 20,000 Worms Transformed this Building [Interview]

We’re kicking off a new series of stories focusing on sustainable rooftops and initiatives in a dialogue with AMA Plaza’s Assistant Property Manager Yordanos Ghdey with Riverview Realty Property Management. Yordanos walks us through the ins and outs of the AMA Plaza’s worm composting program housed on the 48th floor (20,000 worms, to be exact) – the city’s first large-scale commercial composting program.

How did the idea of worm composting originate?

Yordanos Ghdey: We began investigating the concept of composting in 2008, a time when commercial composting capability didn’t exist in the Chicago metropolitan area.  As our knowledge of sustainability increased, we discovered worm composting or vermicomposting through a worm composting consultant.  In 2009, we became the first large-scale commercial worm composting program in the City with 5,000 worms, which have since increased to 20,000.

What was involved in setting up a worm composting operation?

Yordanos Ghdey: We first had to understand the requirements to successfully host vermicomposting within the building, including the maintenance responsibilities, to ensure the worms’ environment is safe. We settled on a location in the 48th floor mechanical room that provides a comfortable and consistent tempered environment. Because the worms are self-managing, we simply needed a container, bedding and waste material to serve as food and nutrients. The worms at AMA Plaza are Eisenia Fetida worms – also known as red worms.

What kind of maintenance is involved?

Yordanos Ghdey: The maintenance is minimal. The management staff, along with an employee from Café 330, checks on the worms once or twice per week to evaluate their food consumption as well as their environment. If too much food is provided, it may become moldy which can create a vulnerable system open to infestations from other microorganisms. If food has become anaerobic, it may begin to smell, but the food is still edible by the worms so we simply add a generous amount of damp cardboard or paper shreddings over it and adjust the feeding schedule accordingly. We also check on the compost level at this time. If the amount of compost produced is not efficient, that is a warning sign that additional care is needed in the health of the worms.

Additionally,  third party assistance is provided by a vermicomposting professional once or twice a year – or on an as needed basis – to check on the worms and confirm the compost level the worms are producing is sufficient. We also have the support of our management team members and one of our Café’s employees who feed the worms dinner from left-over food and ensure their bedding and moisture content of their environment is adequate.

What food do the worms eat?

Yordanos Ghdey: The worms can digest any compostable foods including fruits and vegetables that are broken down into smaller pieces as well as coffee grinds. Shredded paper and cardboard are added to the top of the bin to provide a source of fiber, and foster a dark and moist environment which discourages fruit flies. We also add coconut shreddings to provide additional nutrients in the event the compost is too thick or in need of supplementary moisture. They should not be fed meat, poultry, fish, dairy, junk food or any fruits that are high in citrus such as oranges, limes and lemons. Non–biodegradable materials should never enter the bin. The worms eat about 5,200 pounds of food a year.

Why is this initiative so important to the AMA Plaza?

Yordanos Ghdey: Not only does composting connect the office environment to the natural environment, it also promotes healthier plant growth in our plaza plant beds. The castings of the worms, which are essentially the     compost, have high water retention which is beneficial in the event of a dry spell. The compost also has a slow nutrition release meaning the nutrients are released slowly so the plants receive what they need over a period of time. In comparison, chemical fertilizers oversaturate plants with a large amount of nutrients at once. When it rains, the nutrients are washed out of the soil and chemicals can seep into drinking water pipes.

How do you use your compost?

Yordanos Ghdey: Compost is easily removed from the bottom of the bin because the worms are drawn towards the top where the food source is located. Once the compost falls to the bottom of the bin, we remove it and store it for our outdoor landscaping. When the flowers are replaced in the spring, summer, and fall, the compost is mixed with the soil to provide an organic soil conditioner as well as a natural fertilizer.

What other green features does your building feature?

Yordanos Ghdey: We have several green initiatives here at AMA Plaza and are proud to be leaders within the City of Chicago with many of them.  We offer a robust recycling program which includes complimentary battery and electronic waste recycling. Food composting is also offered within tenant spaces which we operate on a weekly schedule to make the concept much easier on the tenants and in return, increase participation.  Other features include a 6,500 square foot vegetated roof, green cleaning program; water conservation programs, closed-loop paper and product purchasing, traffic reduction initiatives and a materials re-use procedure.

What are some considerations for other buildings who want to implement worm composing?

Yordanos Ghdey: The initial set-up for the worms is minimal, and we were able to use food and other materials recycled from the building, so it is a very low-cost program.

The bin, which is self-contained and odorless, is well ventilated and the worms are very aware of the size of the bin they are in. Because worms are hermaphroditic and can produce a cocoon every 7 to 10 days, one would think they would quickly overpopulate, however, they have an innate ability to control their population. Availability of food, size of their bin and the fouling of their environment decreases reproduction.

Commercial composting does have additional costs for bio-bags (which hold the material and degrade along with the organic material) and for removal.  This cost is somewhat offset by a reduction in waste removed from the property.

How do you involve your tenants with composting?

Yordanos Ghdey: Due to the smaller scale of worm composting, tenants are not directly involved with that program. Tenants are made aware of the program and images are shared on social media and the lobby slides. In 2014, we hosted an event to introduce tenants to a larger scale food composting process and benefits, and invited them to participate. We also provided incentives in collaboration with Waste Management, which handles the food compost pick-up for the building. Once tenants realized how simple the process is and that it does not require much effort on their part, they were very open to the idea. We currently have eight companies composting within the building, including the management office and the hotel. We continue to engage our tenants through education, tours and presentations.

Posted in CRE Trends, Green, Property Management, Tenant Relations | Leave a comment

How 20,000 Worms Transformed This Building

We’re kicking off this series of stories focusing on sustainable rooftops and initiatives in a dialogue with AMA Plaza’s Assistant Property Manager Yordanos Ghdey with Riverview Realty Property Management. Yordanos walks us through the ins and outs of the AMA Plaza’s worm composting program housed on the 48th floor (20,000 worms, to be exact) – the city’s first large-scale commercial composting program.

How did the idea of worm composting originate?

Yordanos Ghdey: We began investigating the concept of composting in 2008, a time when commercial composting capability didn’t exist in the Chicago metropolitan area.  As our knowledge of sustainability increased, we discovered worm composting or vermicomposting through a worm composting consultant.  In 2009, we became the first large-scale commercial worm composting program in the City with 5,000 worms, which have since increased to 20,000.

What was involved in setting up a worm composting operation?

Yordanos Ghdey: We first had to understand the requirements to successfully host vermicomposting within the building, including the maintenance responsibilities, to ensure the worms’ environment is safe. We settled on a location in the 48th floor mechanical room that provides a comfortable and consistent tempered environment. Because the worms are self-managing, we simply needed a container, bedding and waste material to serve as food and nutrients. The worms at AMA Plaza are Eisenia Fetida worms – also known as red worms.

What kind of maintenance is involved?

Yordanos Ghdey: The maintenance is minimal. The management staff, along with an employee from Café 330, checks on the worms once or twice per week to evaluate their food consumption as well as their environment. If too much food is provided, it may become moldy which can create a vulnerable system open to infestations from other microorganisms. If food has become anaerobic, it may begin to smell, but the food is still edible by the worms so we simply add a generous amount of damp cardboard or paper shreddings over it and adjust the feeding schedule accordingly. We also check on the compost level at this time. If the amount of compost produced is not efficient, that is a warning sign that additional care is needed in the health of the worms.

Additionally,  third party assistance is provided by a vermicomposting professional once or twice a year – or on an as needed basis – to check on the worms and confirm the compost level the worms are producing is sufficient. We also have the support of our management team members and one of our Café’s employees who feed the worms dinner from left-over food and ensure their bedding and moisture content of their environment is adequate.

What food do the worms eat?

Yordanos Ghdey: The worms can digest any compostable foods including fruits and vegetables that are broken down into smaller pieces as well as coffee grinds. Shredded paper and cardboard are added to the top of the bin to provide a source of fiber, and foster a dark and moist environment which discourages fruit flies. We also add coconut shreddings to provide additional nutrients in the event the compost is too thick or in need of supplementary moisture. They should not be fed meat, poultry, fish, dairy, junk food or any fruits that are high in citrus such as oranges, limes and lemons. Non–biodegradable materials should never enter the bin. The worms eat about 5,200 pounds of food a year.

Why is this initiative so important to the AMA Plaza?

Yordanos Ghdey: Not only does composting connect the office environment to the natural environment, it also promotes healthier plant growth in our plaza plant beds. The castings of the worms, which are essentially the     compost, have high water retention which is beneficial in the event of a dry spell. The compost also has a slow nutrition release meaning the nutrients are released slowly so the plants receive what they need over a period of time. In comparison, chemical fertilizers oversaturate plants with a large amount of nutrients at once. When it rains, the nutrients are washed out of the soil and chemicals can seep into drinking water pipes.

How do you use your compost?

Yordanos Ghdey: Compost is easily removed from the bottom of the bin because the worms are drawn towards the top where the food source is located. Once the compost falls to the bottom of the bin, we remove it and store it for our outdoor landscaping. When the flowers are replaced in the spring, summer, and fall, the compost is mixed with the soil to provide an organic soil conditioner as well as a natural fertilizer.

What other green features does your building feature?

Yordanos Ghdey: We have several green initiatives here at AMA Plaza and are proud to be leaders within the City of Chicago with many of them.  We offer a robust recycling program which includes complimentary battery and electronic waste recycling. Food composting is also offered within tenant spaces which we operate on a weekly schedule to make the concept much easier on the tenants and in return, increase participation.  Other features include a 6,500 square foot vegetated roof, green cleaning program; water conservation programs, closed-loop paper and product purchasing, traffic reduction initiatives and a materials re-use procedure.

What are some considerations for other buildings who want to implement worm composing?

Yordanos Ghdey: The initial set-up for the worms is minimal, and we were able to use food and other materials recycled from the building, so it is a very low-cost program.

The bin, which is self-contained and odorless, is well ventilated and the worms are very aware of the size of the bin they are in. Because worms are hermaphroditic and can produce a cocoon every 7 to 10 days, one would think they would quickly overpopulate, however, they have an innate ability to control their population. Availability of food, size of their bin and the fouling of their environment decreases reproduction.

Commercial composting does have additional costs for bio-bags (which hold the material and degrade along with the organic material) and for removal.  This cost is somewhat offset by a reduction in waste removed from the property.

How do you involve your tenants with composting?

Yordanos Ghdey: Due to the smaller scale of worm composting, tenants are not directly involved with that program. Tenants are made aware of the program and images are shared on social media and the lobby slides. In 2014, we hosted an event to introduce tenants to a larger scale food composting process and benefits, and invited them to participate. We also provided incentives in collaboration with Waste Management, which handles the food compost pick-up for the building. Once tenants realized how simple the process is and that it does not require much effort on their part, they were very open to the idea. We currently have eight companies composting within the building, including the management office and the hotel. We continue to engage our tenants through education, tours and presentations.

Posted in CRE Trends, Green | Leave a comment

BOMA/Chicago’s State of the City Aldermanic Discussion and Luncheon

BOMA/Chicago was pleased to host some of Chicago’s most esteemed aldermen earlier this month for our annual mid-year luncheon, held at Prime & Provisions in River North. Our City and County Legislative Consultant, Mary Kay Minaghan, moderated the engaging panel discussion focused on the “state of the city” – policy and politics here in Chicago.

Our aldermanic panel included:

  • Alderman Carrie M. Austin (34th Ward) – Chairman of the Budget and Government Operations Committee
  • Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) – Vice Mayor of Chicago representing Chicago’s Downtown
  • Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) – Newly Elected Alderman representing North Michigan Avenue and River North
  • Alderman Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward) – Chairman of the Public Safety Committee

These aldermen’s ideas and viewpoints were as diverse as the constituents they represent – all the way from the far South Side to the Northwest side to Chicago’s Central Business District. The following Q&A, edited for length, includes excerpts from the lively discussion.

Let’s talk about the city’s current fiscal situation and existing pension issues. Specifically, the municipal employee pension fund and the teachers’ pension fund still require funding solutions. Do you think agreements can be reached with these two pension funds, and if so, will Springfield or Chicagoans be tasked with footing the bill?

Austin: I believe the municipal employee pension fund issue will be resolved thanks to an agreement we’re working on with the local labor unions. For the teachers’ pension fund, I’ll continue to pray. We need Springfield legislators to step up and support Chicago teachers like they do teachers downstate. Overall, I’m optimistic. I’ve discussed the pension issue with our budget director, and I believe that by 2029, all of Chicago’s pension funds will be solvent.

Reboyras: The last thing we want is to raise taxes on the city of Chicago. The problem is we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel in Springfield. We’re hoping the teachers’ pension issue will be resolved. But the unfortunate fact is the teachers’ pension here in Chicago is paying for the teachers’ pension in Southern Illinois as well. There’s something wrong with that formula, and that’s what we have to fix.

Reilly: There is a real inequity on how public schools are funded in Illinois. The poorest districts receive the least support in the state. Spending per student is terribly low. The debate over funding formulas has been raging for years, but the truth is, Chicago taxpayers are at an extreme disadvantage. Downstate pensions are paid for with Chicago income taxes, but the state does not support Chicago’s pensions, and it’s not fair. Realistically, I think progress is more likely to be made in the fall. The bottom line is we need a budget passed, and the longer Springfield puts off that decision, the more it’s going to cost us. Despite the fiscal disaster Mayor Emanuel inherited when he was elected, he’s doing a lot to try to restructure pension agreements, in partnership with the labor unions. Hopefully we’ll see significant progress over the summer.

Hopkins: We’re not asking for a bailout – we’re asking for fairness. One of the great conundrums of Springfield politics is the perception that Chicago receives an unfair amount of state resources. That’s just not true. In fact, Chicago subsidizes the rest of the state. All taxes we pay are subsidizing the rest of Illinois, from school funding to road construction and countless other examples. When we ask for equality and fairness, we’re told that we’re greedy and asking for a bailout. This region is the economic engine and driver of the state. We’re in a crisis now, we need help, and we have every reason to expect it from Springfield.

Another big issue in Chicago is the spike of violent crime in recent years. What needs to be done to reduce violence in Chicago? Can the new superintendent accomplish that task?

Reboyras: I firmly believe new superintendent Eddie Johnson is the right person for the job. For years, the Chicago Police Department has had an outsider at the helm. Eddie Johnson is already familiar with the department and the local communities he’ll be tasked with protecting. He’s extremely qualified and passionate about turning things around in Chicago. In terms of the larger violent crime issue facing the city – we are working to overcome some major challenges. However, we’ve already made meaningful progress. For example, everyone in the department is issued a Taser to encourage a “gun last” approach to conflicts. We’re ramping up crisis intervention training for officers. We’re also engaging in regular meetings with the Department of Justice and implementing many of their recommendations. We won’t be able to turn things around completely overnight, but we are taking the necessary steps to move forward.

Reilly: The current state of Chicago public safety is unacceptable. Crime statistics are horrendous for many reasons – some of which are outside our control. Surrounding states hand out guns like party favors, and many Chicago shootings are related to that. That said, we also have a resource issue. Relying so heavily on overtime to address areas of the city that need extra help is a mistake. Over time, we should find a way to make it a priority to build new officers into the budget. That means not just keeping up with turnover, but increasing the force. Regarding new leadership, I’m very impressed with the new police superintendent. His honesty is refreshing. But he faces a difficult task. The most important, pressing need the city has to address right now is security.

Hopkins: I support our new superintendent. He’s a cop’s cop, so he’s done a lot to improve department morale. He’s also local and truly understands the community. I also firmly believe we need more police officers. We’re currently spending more than $100 million in police overtime payments. It may be easier to pay overtime than to hire new officers, but it’s not better in the long run. We can’t replace officers who are retiring at the rate they’re leaving. That’s one thing we as aldermen have some control over. We can allocate more resources towards the police force, and I’ll be fighting for that.

Austin: Eddie Johnson has been a good friend of mine for years. I don’t think we (Chicago) could have gotten any better, because he’s home grown. His plans for the city are a breath of fresh air. The overtime police payments are a difficult issue, since my ward on the South Side benefits greatly from officers receiving overtime pay. However, I do understand that overtime payments are not sustainable. I believe Eddie Johnson will commit to hiring more police officers, which we desperately need.

The relationship between Chicago neighborhoods and downtown can sometimes be described as “us vs. them.” Just last month, the Council approved Mayor Emanuel’s ordinance on neighborhood development, which eliminates the density bonus for developers that currently exists. Instead, it encourages contributions to a neighborhood development fund, which would then be allocated to underserved Chicago neighborhoods. Why did you vote for or against this ordinance?

Reilly: I voted against it, but not because I didn’t agree with the concept. I think it was a good idea to eliminate self-serving design bonuses that most self-respecting architects already put into buildings. The Mayor considered this ordinance an opportunity to provide gap financing to struggling neighborhoods and incentivize retailers to open up in new communities. Where I had an issue was how that fund was governed, how it would be administered, etc. I would have liked to see an independent review of the grant requests to vet them and make sure they were good investments with a concrete ROI. But I do give the Mayor great credit for coming up with the idea. I think the ordinance was well-intended and will do some good, and I hope it’s successful.

Hopkins: I agree with Alderman Reilly, despite the fact that I voted for the ordinance. Within the city of Chicago, we’re often divided among neighborhoods. This was an attempt to unify us, and to spread resources around to struggling neighborhoods and communities.

Austin: My ward will benefit greatly from this ordinance, and we are glad to take advantage of all the resources provided to us.

Reboyras: The problems we have with crime are all tied to poverty and a lack of job opportunities. This ordinance would help alleviate some of those problems. It won’t fix everything, but it will make a dent.

BOMA/Chicago has worked closely with the Department of Buildings on various code issues, and we’ve seen iterations of the building code rewritten over the past 30 years. But Chicago remains the only major U.S. city that hasn’t adopted the international building code, despite the fact that Cook County did so about a year ago. Do you think it’s time for Chicago to consider adopting this code?

Austin: I do believe it’s time Chicago considered adopting the international building code. It will help us stay competitive and keep up with other U.S. cities.

Reboyras: There are things in Chicago’s zoning book that are already obsolete, despite the fact that it was updated five years ago. I agree that we need to adopt the international building code. There’s significant room for change and improvement.

Reilly: We’re competing for investment dollars against other cities across the country. We shouldn’t be putting up extra obstacles or burdens for developers. Rather, we should be doing whatever we can to make it easier to do business in Chicago. There’s no reason developers should have to custom tailor a project to Chicago’s standards. We should adopt the international code as our policy here.

Hopkins: For years, Chicago’s building code has been written by politicians, not engineers and architects. I think it’s time to change that. I recognize the value of international standards vetted by career professionals who know about best practices nationwide.

What are your thoughts on the status of the Wrigley Field development project?

Hopkins: Boston is an interesting case study. Development around Fenway Park has resulted in a major tourism boost. I think the Wrigley Field development is a great opportunity, but I also respect aldermanic privilege. I’m going to offer the local alderman, Tom Tunney, my support based on his decision. I do understand his attempts to limit the use of the Wrigley Field plaza to game days and special events. There is no shortage of places to drink beer or people who want to drink beer in Wrigleyville.

Austin: I also rely on Alderman Tunney for decisions in Wrigleyville unless I feel very strongly about an issue.

Reboyras: As a former peddler at Wrigley Field, I’ll support Tunney. I’m business-oriented. The last thing I want to see is the sports bars in the Wrigley area close. I want the Ricketts to profit, but I also want the local businesses to stay intact. Hopefully we can find a mutually beneficial solution.

Reilly: I have a conflict of interest, as I’m a Cubs season ticket holder. I agree with all of my colleagues. I support my fellow aldermen when they make decisions in their own wards. Knowing Alderman Tunney, he’ll do his very best to strike a balanced deal. The Ricketts shouldn’t be penalized for the great investment they’ve made in the Cubs. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of the local business owners. Tunney has an obligation to them as well.

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Preparing for the Unthinkable: Workplace Violence

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

By Ron Tabaczynski, BOMA/Chicago Director of Government Affairs

In our last post regarding BOMA/Chicago’s recent Open Security Committee Meeting, we explored notable causes and warning signs associated with workplace violence.

The importance of creating and consistently implementing workplace violence policies for employees cannot be overstated.  Assembling a dedicated task force to address specific issues and train employees on pre-incident indicators, how to communicate with HR and security personnel, and take specific steps to prevent an attack is essential to ensuring a safe and secure working environment.

Unfortunately, not all violent incidents are predictable (or preventable), and they tend to evolve quickly. If an attack occurs, how should employees and building management teams respond?

In the second of our two-part Elevator Speech series, we’ll consider several strategies and “best practices” to help address and resolve dangerous situations quickly and with minimal damage.

Employee Training

Emergency training for employees should be the top priority for building management as well as tenant employers.  In the event of a workplace attack, such as an active shooter event, even the best law enforcement teams take several minutes to arrive on the scene – and the response time countdown only begins once they are notified of an issue. As such, employees must be prepared to proactively ensure their personal safety until the police arrive.

Open Security Committee Meeting guest speaker John Busch shared that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have set guidelines on how to react during emergency situations called “Run, Hide, Fight.” More specifically:

  1. Run – Evacuating the building should always be the first course of action if there is an accessible escape path.
    • Even in non-emergency situations, be aware of your surroundings and always have an escape route in mind.
    • Leave all belongings behind, as they will only slow you down (and may appear as threatening objects to police officers).
    • Help others escape, if possible. However, your own safety should be your first priority; evacuate regardless of whether or not others agree to follow.
    • As tough as it may be not to lend a helping hand, resist the urge to move wounded people. They will be attended to by emergency personnel.
    • Keep hands visible and follow all police instructions. Remember: officers will be searching for the attacker. Don’t give them a reason to suspect you’re anything but an innocent bystander.
  2. Hide – If evacuation is not possible, hide yourself from the attacker.
    • Find a hiding spot outside of the attacker’s view.
    • Ideally, the location should provide protection if shots are fired towards you (e.g., a locked door).
    • Take any steps to prevent the attacker from finding you. Locking the door (if possible) or blockading it with heavy furniture are both solid strategies.
    • Try not to restrict your options for movement. As soon as the threat subsides, you should attempt to evacuate.
  3. Fight – As a last resort, prepare to fight the attacker.
    • Act as aggressively as possible against him or her.
    • Yell or throw items as a distraction.
    • Improvise weapons from the materials available to you.
    • Most importantly – commit to your actions. An attack abandoned halfway through can be even more dangerous than doing nothing.

Building tenants should encourage all employees to familiarize themselves with the “Run, Hide, Fight” guidelines. In many cases, being informed on how to react during a workplace attack can be the difference between life and death.

Building Management and Security Teams

According to Keith Martin, security manager at Chase Tower, one of the most important decisions facing management teams during a potential security threat is whether to evacuate, lockdown or shelter in place. The goal should be to establish a “sterile zone” and isolate the threat until police arrive.

Each building and management team is different, and as such, proper emergency preparation and response strategies will vary. At Chase, a Site Incident Management Team (SIMT) of security, IT, HR and building management leaders spearheads safety initiatives for the entire building. The team meets annually, in addition to regular security training sessions, to discuss different emergency scenarios and develop corresponding contingency plans. A few best practices include:

  • Ensure all building tenants and employees are familiar with active shooter and other emergency response plans.
  • Establish communications protocols and instruction guidelines on immediate protective actions (e.g., evacuation, shelter in place, etc.).
  • Ensure emergency communications equipment is present and operable.
  • Assign clear roles for building management, security staff, engineers, etc. to avoid confusion.
  • Gather as much information as possible to share with law enforcement teams upon their arrival. The more informed they are about the situation, the more effectively they will be able to resolve it.

Remember – disarray during a violent workplace incident is inevitable. Emotions and adrenaline among individual employees, building managers and security professionals will be running on overdrive. However, proper education, training and preparation can help ensure the safety of all parties involved.

If you would like further information on any of the best practices we’ve shared surrounding workplace violence, please visit https://www.dhs.gov/active-shooter-preparedness.  We also encourage you to leverage the free videos and other training materials available online from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, American Bar Association and other national organizations.

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Preparing for the Unthinkable: Workplace Violence

Part One of a Two-Part Series

By Ron Tabaczynski, BOMA/Chicago Director of Government Affairs

Several high-profile, violent incidents across the world in recent months have put security and emergency preparedness on top of the minds for many in the commercial real estate industry. Many building owners and managers are grappling with this unfortunate, everyday reality that could impact our properties and tenants.

Recognizing the concern, BOMA/Chicago’s Security Committee recently hosted an Open Security Committee Meeting to address these important topics, with a special focus on workplace violence and its link to domestic violence.

Expert speakers included Pam Paziotopoulos, Senior Council at Dussias Skallas LLP, a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and a former Assistant State’s Attorney; John Busch, Illinois Protective Security Advisor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; and Keith Martin, Vice President and Physical Security Manager at JPMorgan Chase.

In the first of a two-part Elevator Speech series, we’ll explore some of the underlying causes, as well as predictors, of workplace violence.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is unquestionably a serious issue in its own right, but according to Pam Paziotopoulos, the impact of abuse at home often carries over to the workplace as well. It is estimated businesses lose between $3 and $5 billion each year in reduced productivity, increased health care costs, absenteeism, etc. as a result of domestic violence.

When we look at employed domestic violence victims, the statistics are staggering:

  • 98 percent have difficulty concentrating
  • 78 percent report being late
  • 53 percent report losing their job
  • 47 percent report being victimized before work

Unfortunately, domestic abuse also plays a direct role in many workplace violence incidents, with 67 percent of victims reporting that violent offenders have come to their workplace. As soon this occurs, the immediate threat to coworkers and others in the building escalates. According to a national survey conducted by the National Safe Workplace Institute, 71 percent of HR and security personnel surveyed have had an incident of domestic violence occur on company property. Further, 94 percent of corporate security directors rank domestic violence as a high security problem at their companies.

The troubling reality is that domestic violence often infiltrates the workplace. Think of it this way: a victim can change his/her email address, phone number and even address to avoid an abuser. However, it’s much more difficult for victims to change jobs, making them vulnerable to stalking and, in some cases, violent attacks.

Domestic violence cannot be ignored.   Training both employers and their employees on the correlation between domestic and workplace violence is critical to maintaining a safe and secure working environment. There are many resources available. You can find a model workplace policy on the American Bar Association (ABA) website.

Warning Signs

Ask John Busch and he’ll tell you perpetrators of violence in the workplace, from ex-spouses or significant others to disgruntled employees, usually display certain types of behavior prior to the incident.

As part of a recent study, the FBI’s Joint Intelligence Bulletin analyzed more than 150 active shooter events over a period of ten years. Workplace retaliation, domestic disputes and academic retaliation were among the top motivations for an attack. Shooters were often social isolates, and some struggled with mental health. What may come as a surprise, however, is very few had previous arrests for violent crimes. Interestingly, one common indicator of an attack was a major, negative, recent development in the shooter’s life, such as a breakup, financial trouble, job loss or a death in the family.

In 80 percent of shooter events, friends and colleagues saw major behavioral changes in the shooter before the attack. Examples include:

  • Talk of previous violent incidents
  • Unsolicited focus on dangerous weapons
  • Paranoia or depression
  • Overreaction to workplace changes
  • Depression or withdrawal
  • Unstable, emotional responses to everyday conflict
  • Intense anger or hostility
  • Increase alcohol or drug use
  • Violations of company policies
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Blaming others

Upon noticing these characteristics in a colleague, many people’s gut reaction is to withdraw and minimize further interaction. However, this only further isolates the individual and compounds existing issues. Whenever possible, employers and  employees should be trained to recognize unusual behavior in their coworkers. Counseling services should be offered or made available by the employer. A proper referral may not only help the troubled employee, but also ultimately prevent violent workplace attacks.

Contingency Planning

Offering training on how to prevent workplace violence is only half the battle. It’s also important to have an emergency plan in place should an attack occur. In part two of this Elevator Speech series, we’ll share best practices on how to prepare for a worst case scenario – an active shooter event in your building.

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Open Letter regarding Property Tax Increases to BOMA/Chicago Members from Michael Cornicelli

Dear BOMA/Chicago Member:

I’m sure that you have seen and heard the press coverage of Mayor Emanuel’s proposed 2016 budget and real estate property tax increase totaling over $543 million for 2015-2018, including his push to shift much of that burden to commercial taxpayers by doubling the homeowner exemption.

I have never seen an issue with the potential for such dramatic impact on our industry in the nearly 15 years I’ve worked for BOMA/Chicago.

You know that commercial property in Cook County (and only in Cook County) is assessed at 2.5 times the rate at which single family homes and condos are assessed. Because of that, our buildings and tenants have borne far more than our fair share of the tax burden for many years. We cannot allow that to be perpetuated and made even worse. The health of our economy and the attractiveness of our city as a home for business and jobs are at stake.

I want all of you to know that we are employing every resource available to us to evaluate the Mayor’s proposals, to ensure that they are as fair to our industry as they can be. To that end, we will fight against further overburdening commercial taxpayers and tenants in whatever form the painful steps toward fiscal responsibility might take. We are utilizing our own talented staff, our lobbyists both here and in Springfield, tax counsel and researchers, and our public relations firm. Here is a summary of some of the steps we have taken so far:

Participating in Discussions with Key Policymakers

  • We were invited to a private briefing by Vice Mayor Steven Koch and the city’s CFO Carol Brown on the Mayor’s budget and tax proposals, which we attended along with the Civic Committee and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.
  • We met with the Governor’s senior staff to further educate them about the impact of the proposed property tax increase and the dramatic and adverse effects of shifting that burden to commercial buildings and tenants by increasing the homeowner exemption.

Taking our Message to the Public

Making our Voice Heard in Springfield

Forming a Coalition with Like-Minded Business Groups

  • We took the lead in forming a coalition of like-minded business groups working together on these issues. The group includes: Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, Illinois Manufacturers Association, Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, Chicagoland Apartment Association, Illinois Restaurant Association, and others. The list is growing.
  • We continue to research the economic impact of the proposed tax hikes and the proposed expansion of the homeowner exemption, including the effect of the shift in burden from residential to commercial taxpayers. It is difficult to accurately estimate the impact until we see specific proposed legislation, but we’re doing our best with assumptions.

We will soon ask all of you to reach out to the Mayor, the Aldermen, and members of the General Assembly and tell them why we think they must tread cautiously before taking dramatic steps that could jeopardize our economy. We will also ask you to request that your tenants do the same. In particular, we hope you will convey opposition to any proposal to shift this unprecedented tax increase from residential taxpayers to commercial taxpayers, whether that takes the form of an increased homeowner exemption or some other mechanism.

Look for further communications from us very soon that will provide you and your tenants with the tools to take proactive steps in shaping this outcome. As always, your voice is more important than mine in impacting these events.

Thank you for your help and support.

Sincerely,

Michael Cornicelli
Executive Vice President

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Setting the Record Straight on Rumored Property Tax Increases

No one should be surprised about the current fiscal crisis Chicago is facing, but the abundance of recent news articles claiming our taxes are about to explode can be unnerving. And while the increases seem to be coming at us from all levels, hitting us from every possible angle, one of the most alarming pieces I’ve read is from Crain’s Chicago Business suggesting property taxes will increase by 30 percent.

So it’s important to understand that what we’re reading and hearing right now about property taxes is highly speculative. Press accounts are based on assumptions of what will or will not be proposed, what our legislators will or will not approve, and what our governor will or will not sign. There’s really no way to calculate the city’s total liabilities until Springfield passes a budget and resolves the many issues log-jammed with it.

Some of those issues that will impact our taxes include pension reform, workers’ compensation and tort reform. In fact, the Chicago Sun-Times today reported that reforms recently proposed by Governor Rauner would lift the state-mandated $550 million police and fire pension fund payment and provide Chicago with 15 more years to reach 90 percent funding levels – saving the city $843 million over the next five years. Additional proposals include a city-owned Chicago casino with revenues dedicated to the police and fire pensions and the state assisting with teacher pension payments and health insurance contributions. All of these measures would provide significant and much needed relief to the city and taxpayers.

There’s no question that there must be shared sacrifice across the board to resolve these major fiscal challenges. But let’s not forget the burden our commercial real estate industry already shoulders. Commercial real estate property taxes in Chicago account for over 75% of a large building’s total operating expenses, the highest percentage compared with similar cities across the country. Our commercial buildings are assessed at 2.5 times the rate applied to residential buildings and BOMA/Chicago buildings alone paid nearly $750 million in property taxes this past year. And every time another high-rise sells, the city is behind the scenes collecting its transfer tax. The Willis Tower sale alone generated about $10 million for the city.

And the value our industry brings to the city is substantial. BOMA/Chicago’s Economic Impact Study revealed that BOMA/Chicago buildings house over 353,000 employees throughout the Loop, River North, Gold Coast and O’Hare submarkets, and are responsible for nearly 80% of total consumer spending in the Loop alone. These same employees contribute $3.5 billion to Illinois and add over $1 billion in new taxable personal earnings annually.

Solving this dilemma by over-burdening commercial real estate with excessive taxes is in nobody’s best interest. It will cause the economic engine to sputter, and in another year or so, there will be a new financial crisis confronting the City.

In the weeks to come, BOMA/Chicago will be analyzing specific proposals and our legislative team will be working diligently in Chicago and Springfield to protect the interests of commercial real estate. We promise you we’ll be critical and thorough and continue to keep you updated along the way.

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