Mission Impossible

Even without the low pay, high turnover and oppressive conditions, city health inspectors can't manage the load

When city health department food inspectors leave home so they can reach their first destination at precisely 8 a.m., the tracking devices mounted on their city-issued cars are already beaming signals to the department's headquarters on Stadium Drive. At each stop during the day, the inspectors will fill out an itemized report pegging their whereabouts to the minute, which will later be cross-checked with the tracking device printouts for discrepancies -- any deviations are grounds for firing.

As they move from restaurant to daycare center to grocery store, the inspectors face a fat itinerary -- they're expected to thoroughly inspect at least six or seven establishments a day, investigate consumer complaints, go to court and handle numerous other time-gobbling administrative tasks. And that doesn't include drive time.

Inspectors, who are officially called sanitarians, can encounter plenty of obstacles that interfere with efficiency: locked doors, uncooperative or abusive managers, equipment problems, serious violations that require additional work to document. Every detail must be noted on paper, every box checked and blank filled, or a reprimand may follow.

After a solid eight hours in the trenches, the inspectors might like to kick back with a cold one or join their families for dinner. But if they still need to complete their mandatory overtime for the week, such luxuries may have to wait, because failure to do the extra time means a write-up.

Add to these conditions low pay (entry-level salaries are less than $24,000), little opportunity for advancement and a host of grievances against management, and it's no wonder that attitudes among the corps of inspectors are bad and turnover high. Add retirement, family moves and other separations, and the attrition rate reaches staggering proportions. Within the past three years, in fact, 18 have departed a staff that usually hovers around 37. "When I got there, there were many more inspectors than when I left," says Eric Grandich, who quit his job last October for greener pastures in the computer industry. "The morale was so low, it was hard not to hate the job."

A number of inspectors have lobbied for changes in the way the department does business, and they've scored a few modest successes, including small pay equity increases, more accountability from their bosses and adjustments to personnel policies. But many of the inspectors believe that those who have complained have been punished for their outspokenness. "They were seen as troublemakers," says Grandich. "They had to watch their backs."

And though health department managers vehemently deny that charge, one of the most vocal critics of the administration was recently fired -- despite more than seven years of service without so much as a single warning -- while others who had been caught red-handed committing the same wrong got off with a wrist slap, or no slap at all.

With more than 5,500 restaurants and thousands of other vendors serving food in the city, keeping up with the monumental task of certifying and inspecting them all in a timely fashion is tough enough. With the inspections bureau plagued by chronic staff shortages and a disgruntled labor force, it's impossible. Last October, the Press discovered that hundreds of restaurants were overdue for inspections; some had gone almost two years without a visit. Restaurants that were considered the highest risk and were slated for a monthly checkup were getting only one or two inspections a year, if that. And the record-keeping system was in such a sorry state that it took hours to locate individual files.

Division manager Chirag Bhatt, who oversees the department's food inspections bureau, claims he was ignorant of the magnitude of the problem, though he had a general sense that inspections were lagging. "As far as being aware of every area being behind, no," Bhatt says. "That's what supervisors are for."

In response to the revelations, the division has cleaned up the file room and revamped its procedures to try to clear out the inspections backlog. But while inroads have been made, the bureau simply doesn't have the personnel to keep up. If the department were to calculate the number of inspectors needed to handle the load, says assistant director Bob Tannis, who heads the environmental health division, "We would probably show that we need 50 percent more manpower. But that is a statistical model, subject to change."

Tannis says that if the system works as it should, the need for more inspectors would decrease as restaurants improved their practices. But it could also increase, especially if the departure of longtime inspectors continues.

And it will. Four of the inspectors interviewed by the Press say they're actively looking for other work, or thinking about it. "At this point," says one inspector with more than five years of experience, "I'm ready to get out."

Every workplace has its share of disgruntled employees. But for a group of municipal workers to openly coagulate, dub themselves Concerned Sanitarians for Change and start firing off grievances, takes the usual behind-the-back workplace grousing an extra step.

Whether because the group was exceptionally ballsy or simply confident in its positions, Concerned Sanitarians for Change didn't bother to pull its punches after first organizing in 1994. The dozen-odd members of the group joined a union, filed affirmative-action complaints with the mayor's office, accused the department of cronyism in hiring before the Civil Service Commission and aired other gripes to their managers in monthly meetings.

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