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Audit: Health inspectors found napping on job

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Investigators from the Office of the City Auditor found that three restaurant inspectors were wasting city resources by exercising, shopping, napping and misstating the times they actually spent inspecting restaurants.

According to the audit, in January, the auditor’s office received an allegation that several employees of the section of Austin Public Health that inspects restaurants were misusing city resources – their time on the job – and that their supervisors were not adequately holding them accountable. There was also an allegation that the restaurants might not have been inspected properly, putting the public at risk.

Auditors used a professional sanitarian to reinspect 13 food establishments but found no evidence that the restaurant inspectors had allowed dangerous or unsanitary establishments to keep operating, the audit says.

Auditors also took the unusual step of following three restaurant inspectors who use their own cars to travel to restaurants where they do inspections.

One inspector was observed reclining in her car in a parking lot for between one and two hours on two separate occasions. On one of those days, auditors reported that the employee was observed at her home during work hours for an hour and a half, according to an audit released on Friday.

That employee, Carly Moree, told auditors later in writing, “It’s above 85 degrees many months of the year in Central Texas so who would want to, but in my almost four year tenure I may have taken a nap during a break in my car once.”

Moree said she was working on special projects for the department during the time she spent at home, working with pen and paper as opposed to on a computer. “I realize in 2017 this must sound ludicrous, which indeed seemed to be (auditors’) response, but that does not make it less true,” she wrote.

Stephanie Hayden, interim director of Austin Public Health, told the Austin Monitor on Friday that Moree has since resigned.

According to the audit, “Although (health department) management expressed concern that officers may be wasting time, it does not appear that they regularly review or question an officer’s use of time in the field. Our review showed large blocks of time during which specific work tasks were not documented.”

Supervisors overseeing restaurant inspectors are at a disadvantage because the inspectors fill out paper forms on the spot and later input information into computers in their city offices.

Hayden said the Purchasing Office will go before Council in September for approval of a contract to provide hardware and software solutions for restaurant inspections. “We do know that technology will help us make some significant improvements,” in terms of filing reports on a timely basis, she said, “but overall that is one of multiple strategies that we know we need to put in place.”

Auditors cited an example of an inspector leaving her city worksite at approximately 8:55 a.m., but her first documented inspection time was not until 1 p.m. In another instance, the inspector recorded her last inspection of the day ended at 4:15 p.m., but her workday was not scheduled to end until 6 p.m. and she did not return to the office.

Auditors received an allegation that seven inspectors were misusing city resources. Of those, four officers were using city vehicles with GPS. They were unable to determine whether any of those using GPS were wasting their time.

According to the audit, inspector Robin Voss appeared to be misusing her city time. “Specifically, we observed Voss work out at a local gym on at least two separate dates for between an hour and a half and two hours each time. On at least two occasions, we also observed Voss end her day and return home approximately one hour before she was scheduled to finish.

“Voss may have attempted to conceal her misuse by misrepresenting the time in and time out on her written inspection reports. Specifically, we found that Voss listed a time in at 10:45 a.m. and a time out of 12:30 p.m. on the inspection report of a local barbecue establishment. However, we observed Voss at the gym until approximately 11:20 a.m. that day, 35 minutes after she said this inspection began.”

Voss admitted to leaving work early and going to the gym during work hours, according to the audit. Her explanation was “that she had been trained to exaggerate her time in and time out by previous supervisors who are no longer with the city. According to Voss, when she started with the city in 2010, she was doing 15-18 inspections per week, but was told to slow down by management.”

In her written response to the auditors, Voss stated that her office “has been a stressful, gossipy, drama-filled place.” Her previous boss approved her taking her lunch break in the morning in order to escape the office drama, she said. “I would go to the gym during my allotted break then check my emails and plan my inspections for the day. The gym locker room became the quiet, stress free office that I needed.” After that, she explained, she could inspect the schools, hospitals and fraternity houses that she believes should be inspected during their busy lunch times.

Another inspector apparently wasting city time, Theresa Giudice, admitted to auditors that she would run errands and shop during work hours about “once every two weeks.” In addition, auditors on one occasion observed her change into workout clothing and exercise in the parking lot of a local movie theater for about an hour.

Giudice told auditors she would leave her work district before her official quitting time of 5:30 p.m. “maybe two times a week.”

Auditors wrote that based on their interviews with health department staff and management it appears that management expects inspectors to spend more time on each inspection than the inspectors find necessary and therefore management may be setting their expectations too low. Restaurant inspectors are expected to do about 10 to 12 inspections per week.

The audit reports, “As one officer explained, ‘if you only have to do 2-3 inspections in an 8 hour day, what the hell are you doing all day? I have been asking that since I started, only to hear ‘just work your 8 hour day.’ I was told once to go do a compliance visit. You can’t just make up bogus visits at the last minute because there is 45 minutes you need to fill. I’ve been told to sit in my car or a coffee shop and read my (Texas Food Establishment Rules). I took that as code for just tell me you’re doing that and I’ll be happy.”

In response to a question, Hayden said she did not think there was a culture problem at the health department because even though the allegations concerned a larger number of individuals, those allegations were only confirmed about three employees.

However, auditors only followed three inspectors and relied on GPS in the other instances. Auditors wrote that for those using city vehicles, “Our review showed gaps of time ranging from approximately 60-100 minutes between some inspections, however, we were unable to conclude whether any of these gaps constituted waste.”

Hayden said she had recently hired a new assistant director over the Environmental Health Services Division. “With the new leadership in place that’s going to strengthen the leadership and we’re going to have some additional training for all of the environmental health staff and supervisors. … We take this report very seriously and we want to ensure we do everything we can to be good stewards of city resources.”

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This story has been corrected. Members of the investigation team used a sanitarian who was in another department, so that person was not “hired.”

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