City food inspectors knocked for too-frequent breaks


Highlights

A city audit, based on tailing three inspectors, notes long breaks and short days, shopping and gym trips.

The audit knocks the city health department for not better tracking the inspectors during their work days.

Austin Public Health has asked the City Council to pay for software and tablets to address the problems.

The city of Austin office charged with inspecting restaurants and other places that serve food to the public has itself failed an inspection by the city’s internal auditor.

An August audit said a handful of food inspectors tailed by auditors took breaks to recline in their cars, shop or work out, and sometimes leave work early, and that overall the Austin Public Health department’s oversight of their daily work was lax. The inspectors wasted a “city resource” — meaning time — “as a result of grossly inefficient practices and procedures.”

The audit, first reported by the Austin Monitor, faulted city supervisors for failing to track the inspectors’ whereabouts at any given time of the day. And because the inspectors aren’t given laptops or tablets, they use pen and paper to make notes at the inspection scene and can thus fudge the times when entering the report later into a city computer. At least two workers, the audit said, “may have attempted to conceal their misuse (of time) on their inspection reports” by giving inaccurate times of when a trip to an eating place began or ended.

However, the audit also said that none of the restaurant inspections done by the workers, in follow-up examinations of 13 eating establishments those employees had recently reviewed, were flawed and that the public wasn’t endangered by their idling. The internal complaint that sparked the audit had included the charge that inadequate inspections were occurring.

The registered professional sanitarian who did the audits “did not find evidence that Austin Public Health inspectors have allowed dangerous or unsanitary establishments to remain in operation.”

Stephanie Hayden, Austin Public Health’s interim director, said that “ultimately public health and safety were not compromised.”

However, she said the inspections by a staff of roughly 40 officers — the figure varies with turnover and hiring — isn’t hitting the department’s standard of inspecting each of the area’s 5,700 restaurants and other “fixed food establishments” twice a year and annually inspecting at least 60 percent of the 1,400 or so mobile food vendors. The department, aside from Austin food providers, also inspects restaurants beyond city limits under an agreement with Travis County.

“We may be a little bit lower than the two times a year” on the fixed food providers, Hayden said.

The Austin City Council this month will consider buying software and tablets for the health inspectors, she said.

READ: Austin Energy employee used city emails to work a second job

The original complaint focused on seven of the department’s 39 “officers,” who are each expected to do in-person reviews of 12 to 15 eating establishments each week, the audit says. Of those seven inspectors, the audit said, four drove city vehicles that can be tracked with GPS while the other three used their own cars. The auditors followed those three, without their knowledge, and later reviewed the GPS data of the other inspectors.

Among the findings of what the auditor regarded as inappropriate activities during work hours: a trip to a gym that, according to a report filed later by the worker, overlapped an inspection by 35 minutes; inspectors knocking off work up to an hour before the job’s 5:30 p.m. quitting time; an inspector spotted reclining in her driver’s seat and talking on her phone; an inspector spending 90 minutes at home midday; time spent shopping for clothing or groceries; and “frequent and extended breaks throughout the day.”

RELATED: Auditor has found other city employees painting outside the lines

The audit includes a statement from each of those three workers. They wrote that the job, often involving tense encounters with busy restaurant workers, can be stressful and that sometimes they need a mental break after an inspection. And because they travel through Austin’s busy streets and inspections are of uncertain duration, “it is really hard to know what you are walking into and extremely hard to plan your day to end exactly on time,” one wrote.

Of those with city cars, the auditors found gaps between inspections of 60 to 100 minutes, but “could not conclude whether any of those gaps constituted waste.”

One of the three workers has since resigned from the city, said Carole Barasch, a spokeswoman for Austin Public Health. She declined to say if the other two had been assessed any discipline or other remedial action.



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