LIHUE — When Charles Rapozo wakes up in the morning, he gets ready for janitorial work and makes his commute to the Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall.
But he doesn’t do much in the way of cleaning.
Instead, he spends his day sitting in his truck.
That’s where The Garden Island found the County of Kauai employee last week, before the facility closed down for six months to start the new year — sitting, waiting, ready to work, but with no assigned tasks, although he says he arrives early every day to clean the bathrooms.
It has gone on like this for nearly a year.
He is still getting paid. He is still getting satisfactory grades on his work evaluations.
His days are mostly boring, he said, but every now and then people will visit him. A local pastor has visited, thanking him for warning the public about the asbestos issue at the convention hall. A softball coach who practices in the park behind the parking lot where Rapozo spends his days visits him several times a week.
His son or daughter may stop by. A homeless man who hangs out at the convention hall sometimes keeps him company. Sometimes his co-workers say hi.
The lack of assigned work at the convention hall, Rapozo says, is because he’s being retaliated against for complaining about being exposed to asbestos for years while on the job and being denied safety gear and training on how to properly handle the deadly dust.
“The county administration gave me a death sentence,” Rapozo said. “Now I have to worry about mesothelioma for the rest of my life.”
Rapozo filed a lawsuit against the county last month.
He declined to go into detail about his experience as a janitor at the convention hall, but he did say he filed the lawsuit not only for himself, but also on behalf of his family.
“If I hugged my wife, or hugged my daughter after work, they could have been exposed,” Rapozo said.
Rapozo said he is also concerned for the health of many members of the community who have used the hall throughout the years.
Lawsuit outlines history
Initially hired by the Department of Public Works in 1994 as a janitor, Rapozo was eventually offered a full-time position in 1999 and placed at the convention hall.
The lawsuit says Rapozo asked for training on how to handle hazardous materials such as pesticides. He also asked for safety equipment, but never received it.
Beginning in 2005, the lawsuit says, Rapozo began using a high-speed propane buffer to clean the floors of the convention hall.
Again, he did not receive any training on how to use the equipment, the lawsuit says.
“When in normal use, the high-speed propane buffer caused clouds of fine dust particles to waft into the air. These dust particles would stay suspended, while Rapozo was using the machine. He routinely inhaled the dust,” the lawsuit says.
After about a year of using the propane buffer without any safety equipment, the lawsuit says Rapozo’s boss, convention hall Manager Edward Sarita, gave him a respirator, but the respirator did not fit him properly.
“Sarita refused to replace it or provide Rapozo with a properly fitting mask,” the lawsuit says.
In 2010, some members of the community asked Rapozo if there was asbestos in the tiles, according to the lawsuit. He asked Sarita, who allegedly told him not to worry about it, that the tiles were fine.
On Sept. 17, 2015, the lawsuit says, an inspector from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration performed a surprise inspection at the convention hall in which several violations, including Rapozo’s ill-fitting mask, were noted.
On Nov. 2, 2016, the lawsuit says, Rapozo met with the mayor in reference to several issues, including asbestos in the convention hall. A week later, Rapozo met with the fire chief, who instructed him to contact the state Department of Health.
On Nov. 15, 2016, the state DOH came out and inspected the convention hall tiles and told the county not to use any mechanical equipment to clean the tiles until the tiles were tested, and to only use wet mopping to clean the tiles.
Use of the mechanical buffer was not discontinued until Nov. 23, 2016, the lawsuit says. That same day, Rapozo took samples of some of the broken tiles and sent them to a state lab for testing.
On Dec. 2, 2016, the lawsuit says, Rapozo received results from the sample he sent to the lab indicating that some of the tiles in the sample did contain asbestos.
In November 2016, the lawsuit says, Rapozo was asked to take a drug and breathalyzer test. He had never been asked to do either during his tenure with the county.
By January 2017, the lawsuit says, Sarita began to avoid and ignore Rapozo, failing to assign him any work.
“From approximately April 2017 to the present, Rapozo comes to work and spends the entire day sitting in the parking lot. Sarita refuses to work with him and or assign him work. He has been totally isolated; nevertheless, on his 2016-2017 evaluation dated June 30, 2017, Rapozo received a satisfactory grade,” the lawsuit says.
County spokeswoman Sarah Blane said “asbestos was detected in the flooring materials and associated mastic (the adhesive material used to lay the tiles) within certain areas of the lobby and exhibition areas of the facility.”
The tiles in question, she said, are the original flooring materials of the facility, which was built in 1964.
Asbestos abatement at the convention hall, said Blane, is scheduled to take place Jan. 1 through June 30, with Pacific Concrete Coring and Consulting Inc. and Creative Partition Systems completing the cleanup.
The cost of the project is estimated at $181,000, which is lower than the original estimate of $400,000.
Blane said the initial figure of $400,000 was a rough estimate based on past asbestos- abatement work and to ensure that the Parks and Recreation Department had adequate funding to complete the process.
Anna Koethe, state DOH spokeswoman, said there’s a lot to consider when deciding to replace tiles that contain asbestos.
“It depends on factors such as the condition of the tiles, future use of the area and building life expectancy,” she said. “If the tiles are old and show some wear and the goal is to update the appearance and extend the life of the hall, full and proper removal is reasonable.”
If the tiles are kept in place, Koethe said, a management and maintenance program may be necessary to monitor their condition in order to ensure the safety and health of the patrons.
Until the asbestos abatement is completed at the convention hall, the Department of Parks and Recreation has scheduled an OSHA-approved asbestos awareness training for its employees.
Additionally, cleaning activities for the hall will be conducted in accordance with OSHA regulations.
As an employee of the county, Rapozo is represented by the United Public Workers union. The Garden Island reached out to the union for comment, but calls were not returned.
In the meantime, Rapozo waits to be transferred to another location within the county.
It’s been hard on his family, he said.
His daughter has told him she just wants her dad.