Mission Impossible

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

The results, the inspectors felt, were negligible. "A lot of that stuff got shot down," says Sandra Serra, one of the group's charter members.

Frustrated by the perceived lack of action, the inspectors took their case to City Council, where they found a receptive ear in Jew Don Boney. Though Boney's inquiries drew point-by-point assurances from health department management that all was well, the attention seemed to have an effect: In May 1995, and again the following January, the promotion process was revised to remove some of the subjectivity that had caused resentment among those who had previously failed to advance.

While some of the group's stated concerns were arguable, others clearly had merit. Field inspectors in the Neighborhood Protection section of the public works department, for instance, took home bigger paychecks than their health department counterparts even though the food inspectors needed more education and experience to be hired. After grinding slowly through the wheels of city government, that was finally righted in January of this year, when the inspectors received pay adjustments ranging from $300 to more than $3,000 annually.

Health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton says that such moves demonstrate her agency's responsiveness to the concerned employees. "We have always been open to hearing from them and listening to their concerns," says Barton, "and we have acted on those concerns whenever possible."

The dissidents would dispute that claim. Though they acknowledge that their pay has increased slightly, it still hovers at the bottom of the professional scale, and the odds of it increasing through raises or promotions are slim at best. "If I had to get out there and survive on my own, there's no way," says an inspector whose spouse also holds down a full-time job. "I really don't know how some of the guys are making it."

Division manager Chirag Bhatt won't argue the point, but says his hands are tied. "Low salary, I can't control," he says. "Few-and-far-between promotions, I can't control. There's very little we can do."

On the other hand, the inspectors also say that whatever small gains they have managed to extract have been offset by an increasingly harsh work environment. In the wake of the revelation that restaurant inspections lagged woefully behind schedule, pressure to increase output has increased, with only negative reinforcements, such as the threat of punishment or denial of promotion, as incentives. Overtime, which the department offered last October on a voluntary basis, became mandatory in March. "Nobody wanted to help the bureau get caught up," explains Bhatt.

Moreover, the few perks the inspectors once enjoyed have been steadily eroding: The city no longer pays for their memberships in the Texas Public Health Association, though managers who can better afford it still get comped; workweeks, which the inspectors could at one time construct to fit family schedules or other personal needs, are no longer flexible; the opportunity to learn other skills within the inspections field and improve the odds of promotion has become practically nonexistent.

Worse, the inspectors say, managers have become increasingly punitive, denying advancement and using tracking devices and other means to selectively punish certain employees -- especially those Concerned Sanitarians for Change who still remain on the city payroll. Bhatt and others vigorously deny this, but they have trouble explaining the numerous instances in which rules and policies became remarkably fluid for some inspectors yet were enforced to the letter for others.

Five-year veteran Anja Cotton, who has never been shy about voicing her criticisms of the department, is but one inspector who has agitated repeatedly for additional training to broaden her skills, a benefit once considered routine. The reason she was denied, as assistant director Bob Tannis explained in a memo to all the inspectors in September 1996, was that the department just couldn't afford the luxury. "As the [department] is currently short on the number of field sanitarians, priority must be given to daily sanitarian work," Tannis wrote. "Therefore, no cross-training is possible at this time."

Just a few months later, however, field inspector Ashish Dasgupta began taking computer classes that kept him out of the field on Tuesdays -- for weeks. The purpose, says Bhatt, was to train Dasgupta to in turn train office personnel in the use of Windows 95. The office is just now getting Windows 95, Bhatt says, which explains why the inspector hasn't yet put his knowledge to use.

But that doesn't explain why it took so long to learn a relatively simple operating system, or why Dasgupta was selected in the first place, since the two computer systems personnel in that office also attended the training sessions and would be the logical choices to impart their knowledge to the staff.

Equally troubling is the evidence that breaches of the rules by inspectors have been dealt with in dramatically different ways by the managers, depending on who's doing the breaching. While some inspectors have received "counseling letters" -- written reprimands -- for neglecting to fill out certain line items in their reports, others with more gaps in their paperwork over a longer period of time have merely been asked to improve their performance. And that's no small matter -- a single write-up kills any chance of promotion for an entire year.

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