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.

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.

Other inconsistencies are even more dramatic. Inspector Angie Brown recently lost her job for allegedly abusing city time and falsifying documents, though the way her case was handled raises serious ethical questions (see "Frontline Firing"). But other employees who were nailed for the same offenses were either suspended or reprimanded.

Brown had a clean disciplinary record in more than seven years as an inspector, but her history had hardly endeared her to management. A Concerned Sanitarian for Change, Brown had brought complaints to a number of city, state and federal agencies over the years, including the police. At least one supervisor suspected her of tipping the Press to the inspections backlog and file-room nightmare last fall, according to sources. And in May, she and another inspector met with Mayor Lee Brown to apprise him of the situation. "We told him everything that was going on," Angie Brown says.

The Concerned Sanitarians have informally disbanded. Many have left or, like Angie Brown, been fired. Those who remain believe that they and their former colleagues were branded as malcontents and troublemakers and have been deliberately targeted for harassment. "One can only speculate that part of it would be retaliation," says Sandra Serra, who has herself unsuccessfully fought two promotion denials. "I don't think we'll ever know the truth."

To keep inspectors in line and improve productivity, Chirag Bhatt and his crew of chief sanitarians and supervisors have been zealously enforcing the myriad rules that govern their employees' every action. To maximize every moment in the field, inspectors are banned from headquarters except on Wednesdays, unless they have special permission. Each week, Bhatt checks the printout from the tracking devices mounted on the inspectors' cars, makes little red marks next to suspect entries and passes the report to the supervisors for cross-checking. The supervisors also conduct random audits, retracing routes and asking whether the inspectors were at the specific locations and did the specific work indicated on their daily reports.

They're not so demanding of themselves. Supervisors who are supposed to spend the bulk of their time in the office have been known to disappear for several hours at a stretch. Office workers report that Bhatt occasionally wanders into the office well after the 8 a.m. deadline, though there's no indication he's ever reprimanded himself for being late.

Given the attention management pays to the city's vehicle policies, it's odd that Bhatt and others would abuse it themselves. But until last year, Bhatt tooled about town in a late-model city car he took home at night, even though he wouldn't ordinarily have qualified for home storage. His inspectors, in contrast, drive older vehicles that sometimes break down and must be temporarily replaced by substitutes -- some with no air conditioning. "Nobody says the job's comfortable," Bhatt chuckles.

Bhatt defends his home-storage wheels, claiming he was part of the bureau's "emergency response team," which technically qualified him, though by his own admission he hasn't responded to any emergencies. "Not in a recent time, no," he says.

It's harder to defend the city vehicles that were assigned to a pair of administrative assistants in the office who rarely used them. According to several sources, the assignments were made to circumvent the city's proscription against having extra cars sitting around for anyone to use on errands or other nonessential trips. Bhatt insists that the office workers took the cars to the city print shop and other destinations on official city business. "If there is a need for a car to be used, they utilize those cars," Bhatt says.

Health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton is a little more up-front. "You may be right," Barton says. "It was a backdoor way of having a pool car."

Such petty abuses might be excusable in a vacuum. Sure, everybody on the city payroll stretches the limits on some policy or other, and keeping an extra car or two around as a convenience hardly registers on the malfeasance scale. But when low-level employees are fired for allegedly falsifying documents, as Angie Brown was, misrepresenting driver assignments on vehicle-requisition forms takes on a whole new meaning.

Not all the abuses identified by the inspectors are so lightweight, however. Until last June, dozens of citations written for health-code violations were either voided in ways that don't seem to comport with the regulations or disappeared entirely, raising enough questions of propriety to launch a police investigation and a complete overhaul of the way citations are handled internally (see "Phantom Tickets").

In addition, documents obtained by the Press indicate that at least two supervisors inspected restaurants a few days after a regularly scheduled visit by an inspector, which would artificially beef up the inspection numbers; others used improper codes on daily reports, possibly to mask their activities. Sanitarians tell of orders from above to redo inspection reports and leave off damaging information from the original; supervisors allowing restaurants to operate without permits for more than a year and other actions both dishonest and patently illegal. "Politics plays a big part in our office," says an inspector who claims to have been repeatedly overruled by supervisors to the benefit of certain establishments.

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.

If this works in the interest of public health, it's not clear how.
Conversely, however, being six months or a year behind schedule and ignoring the highest-risk establishments for months on end hardly benefits the public, either.

At this point, however, it appears to be an either-or proposition. No new staff positions are on the board for the foreseeable future, according to Tannis. "I guess I could say it wouldn't hurt if we had another five or six sanitarians in the field," he says. "Of course it wouldn't hurt. [But] I want to make sure we're getting all the work we're supposed to be getting with what we have."

To reach Bob Burtman, e-mail him at bob_burtman@houstonpress.com.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Houston Concert Tickets
Loading...