Mission Impossible

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

The department has made changes to hold administrators more accountable. Supervisors must now fill out reports to account for their time, and tracking devices have recently been installed in their vehicles, though it remains to be seen how closely their boss will scrutinize the printouts. A number of cars, including Bhatt's and the two floaters, have been recalled by the city.

The inspectors don't pretend their own hands are entirely clean. Small-time shakedowns and bribery have been commonplace for years, most will admit -- after a lunch interview with an inspector at an area restaurant, this reporter saw the inspector's bill dematerialize, courtesy of the owner. Excessive time off and low output contributed to the huge backlog of inspections (which still exists, though it's shrinking). If the pressure now seems excessive and nitpicky, they brought it on themselves, at least in part. "The reason [management] stuck those tracking devices on the cars in the first place was 'cause they weren't doing shit," says a former inspector who left the city after almost ten years. "Inspectors were their own worst enemies."

And though inspectors complain bitterly about the big-brother aspect of the tracking devices, it's hard to argue with the results: Productivity has increased significantly since the electronic monitoring began. And though keeping written track of every minute may be a pain, "If you're doing your job, you have nothing to worry about," says inspector Sandra Serra."

Serra doesn't argue that inspectors should be turned loose in the field. She just doesn't want to be singled out by someone in no position to be doing any singling. "If you're gonna track me, track the next person," Serra says. "I know there's been abuse of the system, but there's been abuse on all levels."

Inspectors have a term for breezing into a restaurant, doing a cursory inspection and breezing out: "hanging paper," a reference to the certificate of inspection that every food establishment must hang on a wall in public view.

Inspections are complex procedures. Temperatures must be taken of the food inside every cooler as well as the coolers themselves, and the results logged on an inspection form; each machine must be given a thorough once-over to catch hints of slime, food particles or other signs of unsanitary practices; the restaurant's papers must be checked and in order; a checklist of 28 items awaits individual attention. The inspector must then communicate any deficiencies to the manager; sometimes serious violations must be fixed immediately, or the inspector has to shut the place down.

Different people work at different speeds, but Chirag Bhatt knows how much time is needed to do an average inspection. "Typically, a fast-food restaurant should take about an hour, hour and 15 minutes," he says. For a full-service establishment, the need increases -- the bigger places can take up to four hours to completely review.

The health department wants six inspections from each sanitarian each day. Factor in the time it takes to drive from one place to another, breaks, other obligations, such as meetings and filing paperwork, waiting in court for citations to be resolved and the miscellaneous inevitable pitfalls of the job, and the math simply doesn't work.

Other important calculations fall far short of an equals sign. Ten years ago, says Bhatt, the federal Food and Drug Administration recommended that an inspector carry a load of about 150 food vendors. In Houston, inspectors average three times that many, and chronic short-staffing has forced inspectors at various times to shoulder an ungodly load of more than 600. At an FDA meeting last year, a new standard was issued: ten hours of inspection per establishment per year. Bhatt isn't sure what his bureau's average is, but knows it's far from the mark. "The number of people we have, it just doesn't match," he says.

To alleviate the discrepancy, the department has pulled inspectors from other areas and assigned them to the field. But unless their jobs were superfluous in the first place, that can't last without an eventual erosion of other important functions, if it hasn't happened already.

In addition, assistant director Bob Tannis wants to up the daily inspections quota. Having tightened what had been a fairly loose system to get more efficiency from the work force, Tannis figures that "now we can ask for seven or eight [inspections per day], maybe."

Tannis can ask, and he may get, but the inspectors say there's only one way to do that many establishments: Hang paper, and write up a few violations to make the report look credible. Thus: "It's not about quality anymore. It's about how many papers can you hang in a day," as one inspector says.

A review of daily reports indicates that paper-hanging may already be a serious problem. The reports show that inspectors have spent as little as 25 minutes doing a fast-food restaurant. For some inspectors, more than an hour at any establishment is a rarity.

That's especially a concern for patrons of restaurants in the funkier sections of town that have traditionally had trouble at inspection time. If an inspector is behind on his or her quota and facing a consequent hassle, the temptation to chop a three-hour inspection in half would be difficult to resist. "The best thing you can do is hang justifiable paper and get out," says a former inspector.

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