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Work Boils Over for Restaurant Inspectors

Health: Staff's workload increases as county implements new rating system.


He spends all day in restaurants. But when the lunch hour arrives, Hector Dela Cruz doesn't eat.

There's no time for that--Dela Cruz has a full plate of headaches in front of him.

Is the chili simmering on that stove hotter than 139 degrees? Is the ranch dressing, spooned atop the salads stored in that walk-in cooler, under 42 degrees? Is there enough sanitizing liquid in the dishwater in that corner sink?

Dela Cruz is a Los Angeles County restaurant inspector. And there's a lot riding on the answers to those questions and to the 46 others printed on the Food Program Official Inspection Report on his clipboard.

Since last year the county's 115 inspectors have struggled to introduce a new letter-grade rating system that aims to tell restaurant patrons exactly how clean the kitchen in back really is.

Problem is, the faster the inspectors work, the farther behind the inspectors get.

That's because the new grading procedure allows restaurant operators unhappy with their score to immediately request a reinspection that can lead to a higher grade.

And that has caused the inspectors' workload to explode.

"Now it's just push, push, push," said Dela Cruz, 30, as he hurried one recent noontime to inspect three kitchens at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades.

Dela Cruz feels like he'll never catch up, and he's not alone. Public employees find themselves scrambling like never before to keep up with workloads that continue to grow, while available resources--such as money for additional help--continue to dwindle.

For example, critics say a flawed system of oversight contributed to the deaths of two children who died earlier this year while wards of Los Angeles County's foster care system. Those recent tragedies and the death of a third child led the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to order a review of the agency.

Some dedicated employees work on their own time to make sure the job gets done. Deputy public defenders spend weekends poring over criminal cases, social workers toil into the night to check on the safety of one more child, and probation officers take detours on the way home to make room for surprise visits.

In the case of the county's restaurant inspectors, Dela Cruz and his colleagues are expected to work on their days off, a sign of the increasing pressure they are under to safeguard the public's health.

"There are more and more things inspectors are held accountable to and have to look at. And the inspection process is under more and more scrutiny by the industry and the public," said Michael Spear, the director of district environmental services for the county Department of Health Services.

Spear's inspectors are responsible for monitoring 33,000 restaurants and other food-handling outlets in the county. That means the average inspector is responsible for 287 sites.

That's not much different from the statewide average. But L.A.'s new letter-grade rating system has tripled the workload of some restaurant inspectors, requiring them to visit some eateries 10 times a year.

No other county is as tough on inspectors as Los Angeles.

The county is budgeted for 140 inspectors, but 25 of those slots are unfilled as inspectors move on to better jobs faster than they can be replaced.

Dela Cruz is temporarily filling in for another inspector in his office who recently had heart surgery. That means juggling inspections of restaurants in adjoining Westside communities with those in Dela Cruz's own territory.

He packs his lunch most days so he can eat on the run. If that's not possible, he tries to grab a late sandwich at a fast-food outlet outside his inspection territory.

Explaining Deficiencies

Restaurant operators cringe when they see Dela Cruz walk through their front door. The importance of the new letter grades prompts them to bird-dog him each step of the way--haggling over every score-reducing deficiency found. Some beg for leniency.

Dela Cruz says some of his colleagues have been threatened on the job, and a few reportedly have been offered bribes.

Inspectors have learned to carefully explain deficiencies to restaurant operators. And to carefully defend their findings in detailed, handwritten reports filed in triplicate with their health department superiors.

Letter grades were introduced in early 1998 as the result of a television station's hidden-camera report that depicted filthy kitchens and sloppy food-handling techniques in some restaurants.

The new inspection policy deducts points for each problem observed by an inspector. Kitchens scoring 90 and above receive an A. A grade of B goes to restaurants scoring 80-89; a C is issued for scores of 70-79. A numerical grade is issued to places scoring below 70 and that triggers an automatic administrative hearing by health officials.

But restaurant operators unhappy with a bad grade can do a fast cleanup and pay a $161 fee to apply for a quick reinspection.

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