The 21st Centry Building Superintendent
As residential buildings and the business of managing them have become more sophisticated, the term “super”—as in superintendent—has come to mean “super-qualified.” The days of the building handyman armed with little other than a ring of keys, a plunger and not-my-job grimace are just about over. Today, supers or resident building managers, are commonly, justifiably, also known as “building engineers.”
Equipped today with technically-advanced operational and communications systems, residential buildings of any size require a broad range and high level of skills from their maintenance staff—and in these recessionary times top-notch candidates are showing up for the jobs in abundance.
According to Robin Habacht, founder and owner of Monticello Management, Inc., which manages co-ops and condos in New York and New Jersey, “We have become more particular and selective in hiring. There are greater numbers of people in the candidate pool today and more people go to technical schools and are licensed in fields like air-conditioning and boiler maintenance.”
An increasingly better-trained and qualified superintendent and support staff obviously provides great benefit to apartment buildings, but the increasingly complex job and its attendant skill-set can present some new challenges as well.
Careful What You Ask For
When your operations staff is highly-trained, it’s logical to ask them to do a broad range of projects in the building. But management should be very cautious about assigning work that falls outside of staff members' job descriptions. First of all, says Habacht, “He or she can refuse because it’s not something that they usually do—perhaps it's not something they're comfortable with and don't know if they can do well. You don’t want to force a good staff member because if he’s good, I wouldn’t want to lose him.”
But more important, “There can be very serious ramifications if you ask the superintendent or staff to do extra work,” says Manhattan attorney C. Jaye Berger, who specializes in real estate, co-op, condo, construction law and litigation. “When these people are working for the building they are working within ‘the scope of their normal employment’ —a legal expression.”
When they are asked to do a job outside the scope of their normal employment, even if they are compensated for that, explains Berger, “Then the question is, is he set up to do that? Does he have insurance? He probably doesn’t.”
The board and management have to think like a lawyer. “When you start crossing that line,” cautions Berger, “if you use [staff] like general contractors in areas where they don’t have insurance to cover it or a license to cover it, then you’re getting into dangerous waters. It can lead to lawsuits.”
For example, she argues, “Let’s say a building thinks there’s value in asking the super to do a little extra job, like painting. If the super trips and falls over a bucket, who is going to take care of him? If they get hurt on the job, they might be able to bring a lawsuit.”
Hey, Let’s Sue the Board
Even though a super might know as much about plumbing as a licensed professional, his duties stop at the wall, extending only to jobs like changing faucets, says Berger. “Let’s say they do something that creates a terrible leak: whose insurance is going to pay for that? He’s not really an independent contractor; he doesn’t have his own insurance. Those are the things to think about when you think of saving a few bucks to have your staff do that.”
Indeed, adds Robert I. Gosseen, an attorney with Ganfer & Shore, LLP in Manhattan, “With insurance claims, residents are very quick to sue the building—to sue the board—for water damage, or for any other kind of damage.”
As with plumbing, similarly, electrical work done by building staff members should include changing faceplates and lighting fixtures and very little else.
Technically, according to attorney Matthew Leeds, also of Ganfer & Shore, “If the superintendent does work and is not licensed, if something goes wrong it is very likely negligence per se—you don’t have to go any further. If he has a license, somebody actually has to prove that he did something outside of what would normally be done by a professional in those circumstances.”
But without the license, the pros agree: it's case closed. It’s negligence and could give the building’s insurance carrier grounds for disclaiming coverage of any damage caused by the so-called negligence.
Some buildings, especially older buildings, will not allow in-house staff to do the slightest infrastructure work. “I represent a magnificent Central Park West building,” says Gosseen, “where every time they break into a wall they hit asbestos. It’s a huge OSHA violation, so they just don’t do it. They bring in certified asbestos removal people and outside plumbers to do all that work.”
By and large, boards and management respect the scope of the super’s and support staff’s normal employment, observes Jeffrey M. Heidings, president of Siren Management Corp., which manages some 40 co-ops, condos and rentals, mostly in Manhattan. “They’ll make sure to fully utilize their skills, but are careful not to take advantage of them.”
But that’s less true of individual owners, he adds. “The only time taking advantage comes into play in the co-op or condo community is when resident shareholders think the super is supposed to provide more service than the rules allow. In a co-op, you have to do everything within your own co-op yourself—95 percent at your own expense. And you don’t call the super for it. You call an outside contractor. Some residents pretend they don’t know the rules. A super’s job is not to change a light fixture for residents of a co-op.”
Hiring Building Engineers
Even without pushing the limits of their job description, superintendents operate more advanced systems and have greater responsibility than ever before. As the most important person on a multi-staff team, the super should be carefully vetted.
The first thing to look for is extensive experience as a super in other buildings,” advises Heidings. “If it is a regular multi-staff building, you want somebody who has run such a building,” Heidings continues. “You want someone with experience, who shows the ability to handle people and has an in-depth repair background, including plumbing and minor electrical.” He often contacts and monitors outside licensed crews. And at the moment, he adds, “there is enough of a labor pool out there that you don’t have to hire anyone who has never been a super.”
Important credentials in a superintendent include a license to operate a No. 6 oil-fired boiler, a certificate of fitness to work on a standpipe sprinkler system if the building has one, and, if he or she is going to supervise any work in pre-1978 buildings, which most likely used lead paint at one time, the super needs EPA certification, as does any staff involved in demolition and/or plastering in common areas of the building.
Technical know-how extends beyond basic operational infrastructure maintenance today.
“Almost all superintendents of multi-unit buildings are using email, texting and things like that to communicate with management,” observes Heidings. “The supers are your partners in the field, and so they have to react to the things that are going on as well as management does.”
In addition, the superintendent often has the task of maintaining security systems. “Security has been stepped up over the last 10 years in buildings,” says Heidings. “It was a trend even before 9/11. Supers now have to monitor banks of video cameras and recorders.”
A People Person
The super’s job also has a significant public relations component. “You have to handle a lot of people when you’re running a building,” says Heidings. “Residents come to you morning, noon and night.” If not overly effusive, to an extent the super “should be someone who is communicative,” he adds. “A people person.”
“Look for somebody mature,” Heidings relates. “Someone who seems responsible. They have to be organized and keep their schedules in order, because in a big building, they’re constantly doing something.”
While it’s tempting to hire a superintendent whose portfolio bulges with technical degrees, licenses and vast experience, Habacht recommends that managers “ask themselves, ‘Why is this guy interviewing for me if he is so overqualified?’ ” Once the market improves, she says, “my thinking is, he might leave as soon as he can.”
Finally, even when it’s clear a candidate for the job has sterling qualifications and a reputable character, it’s important to make sure he or she is a good match for your building—a more subtle call to make.
“You have to get the right super for the right building,” says Heidings. “The building already has a culture, and you can run into trouble taking somebody on who doesn’t match the building’s already established culture, or doesn’t have the people skills to ingratiate him or herself with the current staff.” That doesn’t mean the job candidate wouldn’t fit nicely in the right building, he is quick to add. “If they don’t fit the building that they were applying for they might fit another building of mine.”
If the fit proves less than ideal and results in strife in the building, there is nothing to prevent management in a non-union building from firing an employee for any reason, outside of the fair labor practices that govern any sort of business. But that’s not the case in a union building.
In co-ops with staff represented by SEIU 32BJ, the largest property services union in the country, a new employee can be let go anytime during the first six months, which is an evaluation period. But after the probationary six months, according to the union’s collective bargaining agreement, terminating a superintendent can be a complex process.
“You have to establish that there’s just cause for terminating him,” explains Gosseen. “You have to have gone through progressive disciplinary steps.” Most boards find it is not worth the time and energy of building and presenting a case at a union hearing. “In the real world,” says Gosseen, “typically the building is willing to make a deal with the superintendent—to pay to get them out and move on to the next person.”
Whatever the financial cost of firing a super, the damage to the community could be more difficult to contain. “There is a tremendous bond that is built up in buildings between the residents and the superintendent,” observes Gosseen. “When the board is considering terminating the superintendent—perhaps to try to get a better one—it becomes a proxy fight. Half the people in the building want him to stay and half want him to go and huge battles erupt that take months to resolve, if they ever get resolved. I think that’s probably a building’s biggest source of tension.”
Steven J. Cutler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.