Staffing Issues at the County Health Department Are Affecting LA Restaurants

This story mentions a death by suicide.

The Los Angeles Times published a report on March 15, 2024, detailing operational issues impacting the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LADPH) and its food safety inspectors. In it, current and former field inspectors say that the department is short-staffed and struggling to fulfill its safety inspection duties, which they allege presents a health hazard to the public. Further, the increased workload and heightened responsibilities have taken a stressful toll on inspectors. The Times report comes in the wake of an inspector who died by suicide in February.

One of the report’s most concerning findings involves the department’s retention numbers, which have decreased dramatically in recent years, leaving fewer people to physically inspect the county’s food-related businesses and restaurants. The dozen current and five former LA County health inspectors interviewed by the Times allege that the department’s current employee retention issues began at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other health departments across the country, LADPH’s inspectors added to its already demanding workload by administering new safety protocols. As a result of these new demands, the report says that many inspectors left the department for other jobs.

A department spokesperson told the Times that the county typically employs 244 field inspectors but currently has 69 vacancies. The health department is having difficulty locating qualified applicants, though 27 inspectors are currently in training. That leaves fewer inspectors tasked with examining food and restaurant safety, as well as rental properties, pet stores, massage establishments, and other businesses in the county.

The Times spoke to Judith Serlin, a representative from Teamsters Local 911, which is a union for workers in the private and public sector, including inspectors. Serlin alleged that management isn’t listening to its field inspectors’ concerns. She told the Times that organizational issues within the LADPH jeopardize those who dine out in Los Angeles and the employees entrusted to protect them.

The Times reviewed internal documents and discovered that county inspectors checked on approximately 12,000 high-risk food facilities three times in 2019. But in 2023, only 327 high-risk establishments actually received the mandated three inspections for the year. Workers described an overburdened workplace coupled with mismanagement, which in the report they allege led to inspections being substandard and rushed. These impacts could be seen in August 2023, when a Shigella bacteria outbreak occurred after a three-day event at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel where over 30 people were sickened, with four requiring a hospital visit.

LADPH director Dr. Barbara Ferrer faced backlash from employees in February 2024 after inspector Heather Hughes jumped to her death at the county building. The report notes that the suicide is not attributable to a single cause, though Hughes’s coworkers emphasized that her death amplified their complaints and frustrations. In an email to staff, the department noted it would hire an independent expert to determine why staff are leaving in high numbers and to offer guidance on how to improve the department.

Eater reached out to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health for comment. Edited for length, a spokesperson shared a statement, which reads in part:

“First, we want to acknowledge that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health continues to mourn the unexpected death of Heather Hughes, who was a beloved member of our Public Health team. Ms. Hughes was a dedicated public servant whose wisdom and field knowledge were highly valued by her colleagues. Her compassion, kindness, and generosity are also deeply missed.”

“We have heard from a number of Environmental Health employees regarding various workplace concerns. We are striving to work collaboratively with staff and labor partners to address them and support an inclusive workplace that ensures the well-being of the workforce, which remains one of Public Health’s highest priorities. At the same time, we continue our efforts to ensure accountability, high-quality work, and efficiency, all of which are critical to the Department’s mission to serve the public.”

The statement further outlines that the department’s goal is to inspect “high-risk” restaurants “at least once a year.” (The Times report claims that previous procedure guidelines outlined at least three inspections per year.) The department says it is continuing to implement a “Just Culture” workplace policy that “ensures accountability while encouraging employees to raise and discuss workplace issues without fear of retaliation.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing or affected by a mental health or suicidal crisis, visit the California Department of Public Health website, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to speak with a counselor at (800) 273-TALK (8255), or text ‘988’ (or chat online on the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline’s website) for free, confidential, and immediate help.

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