Photo credit: Flickr Kafka4prez

When Sandra Orzel began work as a restaurant inspector for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health on December 14, 2009, she appeared to be just what the department had been looking for. She had a degree in biology and two years experience as a food inspector in Los Angeles, and she spoke Spanish.

In her first months on the job, she had some disagreements with the department over the length of her inspections and the new violations she found during follow-up inspections, but she completed 71 more inspections than required and got a series of positive reviews.

Then, on December 2, 2010 — eight days before she would end a year-long probationary period — Orzel was handed a letter of termination for “failure to demonstrate the ability to do the job with the same expectations given for all employees.”

Orzel believes, however, that she was fired for speaking out against the department’s inspection policies and about inappropriate behavior within the department.

“I think it was the ultimate harrassment, to work so hard to prove my worth, and then fire me days before my probation was over,” she said. “I think it’s very cruel.”

Since being let go, Orzel has filed two complaints with the state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one on December 16, 2010, and another on March 1, 2011. The commission clerk told her that due to the backlog of cases, it will take a year and a half for hers to be considered — news that made her decide to talk about them with Mission Loc@l.

The Department of Public Health declined to comment for this article because they are not allowed to talk about former employees, said Eileen Shields, the department’s spokeswoman. However, both Shields and Rajiv Bhatia, the department’s director of occupational and environmental health, indicated that Mission Loc@l did not have all of the information in the case.

The department that Orzel walked into in 2009 was one still recovering from personnel issues that had left it with more than five vacancies. At least three inspectors were fired in the summer of 2009 for disciplinary transgressions such as illegally accepting money in return for food-handling certificates, according to an investigation by the City Attorney’s office.

At least two other inspectors retired or resigned around the same time, according to the department.

The vacancies left the department short-staffed. When Orzel started, and throughout her time there, some restaurants had not been inspected for more than a year, inspection records show.

Those vacancies have since been filled, and the department again has a full staff of 25 inspectors, including two who are able to speak Spanish well enough to receive bilingual pay and five who receive bilingual pay for their Chinese-language abilities.

Documents indicate that during her year-long trial period, Orzel was a high performer. From January 1 to November 15, 2010, she completed 731 restaurant inspections — 211, or 41 percent, more than she was required to do, according to internal inspector performance indicators.

Orzel said she took her work home, translated documents for the department, never took vacation time and took on a bigger workload when asked to.

Only seven months before her dismissal, Orzel’s employment seemed to be going well.

On April 27, for example, her superior, Stephanie Cushing, wrote in an email, “Thank you Sandra, Zach and Rob for diligently attacking their districts.”

Her Dream Job

After working as a high school math teacher, as a food inspector for Los Angeles County, and for two private companies as a food safety auditor, Orzel, 32, thought she had found her dream job.

San Francisco’s health department has a reputation as an elite organization, hiring only the best, Orzel said. With a starting salary of $70,000, it is the best-paid health inspection position in California.

Orzel quickly discovered that her dream job was neither elite nor professional, she said.

In June 2010, she told a reporter that she was surprised by how lax the department’s restaurant inspection policies were in comparison to those of Los Angeles.

For example, she didn’t understand how restaurants were allowed to put up signs saying they were closed for renovations when they had been closed for serious health violations.

She was also concerned that some restaurants had gone years without being inspected. After talking to Orzel and other inspectors, Mission Loc@l wrote a series about those issues, and the department has since changed its policies and hired more staff.

Orzel also spoke up against what she calls a “hostile” work environment, where gossip was rampant. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity program in San Francisco on September 7, 2010, nine months after she was hired and three months before the department would end her employment.

“I felt that I had to do that to protect myself,” Orzel said. “I definitely wanted the harrassment to stop.”

In her complaint, she detailed incidents in which one of her superiors allegedly gossiped and ridiculed her in front of department and restaurant staff. For example, her superior began referring to her as “lipstick inspector” and “begins to visibly reapply lipstick before each inspection we do together,” Orzel alleged in her hostile work environment complaint. (Pages 1, 2)

In late October and early November, just weeks after filing her complaint, Orzel received three evaluations in a three-week period from Cushing, who was her manager.

This is not standard procedure, according to Orzel. In fact, earlier that year, on March 2, 2010, Cushing notified Orzel in a memo that she would be evaluated once every two months.

Nevertheless, that changed in October and November after she filed the complaint in September. Orzel was evaluated on October 28 and November 4 and 15.

Orzel said she believes that the department was building a case to fire her in retaliation for filing the hostile work environment complaint and for her critique of department policies — even though the latter was confirmed by other inspectors.

One of the most consistent criticisms in Orzel’s evaluations was that she took too long to do inspections.

Orzel said that the length was necessary because the restaurant owners needed help understanding the code, especially because many had not been inspected for more than a year. She was also in charge of two of the most notoriously difficult districts in the Mission and Chinatown.

In her October 28, 2010, evaluation of Orzel, Cushing took issue with Orzel’s 45-minute re-inspection of Philz Coffee and a two-hour inspection on an earlier date.

Orzel said there were larger issues with Philz buying pastries from an illegal vendor, which were kept at room temperature when they were required to refrigerated.

She helped Philz comply with code, and even helped the food vendor get a catering permit and connect with the commercial kitchen at La Victoria.

On October 28, Orzel wrote in response to Cushing’s memo from the same day: “This is an example of the necessity to spend ample time training the public on the importance of food safety. The wrong thing for me to have done was to ignore the fact this coffeehouse was buying pastries from an illegal vendor and abate at the first inspection even after observing a high-risk violation. It is more effective and productive to spend more time per inspection to GET the point across that this is a violation and to provide solutions….”

In a March 2, 2010, memo, Cushing reprimanded Orzel for finding new violations in re-inspections and wrote that all the violations should be observed during the routine inspection.

“Reinspection times seem excessive,” the memo read. “Verify abatement, do not make another routine inspection. Weaknesses should have been identified during the routine inspection.”

Richard Lee, the department’s director, told Mission Loc@l in July that re-inspections are a chance for inspectors to observe new violations.

In an evaluation on November 4, Cushing told Orzel not to write abbreviations such as RTE, and instead to write down “ready to eat.” This complaint appeared in her first evaluation in January and again in her November 15 evaluation.

Orzel said she had been exhausted and promised to be more careful.

Documents provided by Orzel show that despite taking several hours per inspection, she exceeded the number of inspections she was asked to do.

Several restaurants in the Mission remembered Orzel as being thorough and even taking photos.

Teresa Velasco, a Spanish speaker, owns Doña Tere’s Market, which Orzel closed on March 1 and gave a rating of 63. The restaurant had not been inspected for almost a year. Velasco went to an abatement hearing and complained that the previous inspector never told her about her violations. Orzel did.

The market was allowed to open on March 5.

On July 15, Orzel inspected Doña Tere’s again and gave it an 86. Velasco credits Orzel’s advice and instruction for the improvement.

“She was tough, but she was good,” said Velasco.

The health department also alleged that Orzel failed to introduce herself to the owners twice, and in two instances gave the wrong sanitary directions.

Orzel denied that she failed to introduce herself and acknowledged that she made a sanitary mistake because of exhaustion. She told an establishment to use cleaning solution with a concentration of 50 ppm (parts per million), when the correct concentration should have been 100 ppm. Using a weaker concentration may not kill all germs. Orzel says she was graded too harshly.

Legal Action

After Orzel was fired, she filed a discrimination complaint on December 16 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a state agency. In addition to the hostile work complaint from September 7, Orzel also filed a retaliation complaint with the health department’s EEO program in December 2010.

The EEO program responded more than two months later, on February 3. In its response, Sylvia Castellanos, the program’s senior specialist, determined there was no discrimination because none was alleged.

Castellanos wrote that because Orzel did not allege discrimination in her hostile work environment complaint, which was based on “Immaturity and Maliciousness,” it cannot be considered retaliation.

The health department declined to reveal how many employees fail to finish their probationary period. However, two of the department’s current health inspectors say it is rare.

In fact, past cases show that it is sometimes remarkably difficult to be fired from the health department.

One employee was hired by the department in 2006 despite being terminated from his job as a Los Angeles County health inspector for “alleged expense report improprieties,” according to an investigation by the City Attorney.

The department received sexual harassment complaints about the employee in April 2007. He was subsequently fired for “further misconduct” and then rehired and given a “last chance agreement” in October 2007.

Finally the employee resigned on June 10, 2009, shortly after an investigation by the City Attorney concluded that, among other incidents of misconduct, he had given food-handling permits to restaurant employees in his inspection district for a fee, without administering the legally required test.

Orzel said recently that she wants to return to work in San Francisco. The pay was good, and when she applied for a job in Sonoma County, Lee, the San Francisco department’s director, told Sonoma County officials that Orzel was a bitter employee and “had no family in Northern California,” Orzel alleged in a March 1 retaliation complaint filed with the EEO Commission.

Rigoberto Hernandez

Rigoberto Hernandez is a journalism student at San Francisco State University. He has interned at The Oregonian and The Orange County Register, but prefers to report on the Mission District. In his spare...

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19 Comments

  1. if I am not confused, Taqueria Vallarta (24th & Balmy Alley)was closed down for a long while due to health violations and it only said that is was done to renovations…
    I have never been back there!

    1. The policy only changed last fall, but we’ll look into this to see when it was closed. Thank you, Lydia

  2. It’s ridiculous that this sort of thing would happen in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it fits so well with the conservative narrative that entrusting government bureaucrats with such authority leads to cronyism and bribery. Little surprise that when a whistleblower comes around, the Department uses its powers of self-regulation to fire her.

    The victim here, beside the fired inspector, is the consumer who has a false sense of confidence in health safety and who bankrolls through their tax dollars the immoral behavior of grossly irresponsible “public servants.”

    This is not only shameful, it’s disgusting.

  3. An inspector as meticulous as Orzel should not have been fired. Think of all of the violations that she helped correct.
    Please get to the bottom of this, and also update this issue; we all deserve to know what’s going on in that department.

  4. Once again government bureaucracy has demonstrated its double-standard mentality when implementing the mission statement of: “public service” and actual practice. This miscarriage of “truth and justice” is prevalent in all areas of departmental operations, from hiring, competive bidding for supplies, investigating and addressing dicrimination practices, and so on and so forth.

    WHAT IS ACTUALLY NEEDED IS A CITIZENS WATCHDOG COMMITTEE WHICH IS NOT CONTROLLED BY ANY SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP OR DEPARTMENT.

    MY BEST WISHES FOR THE HEALTH INSPECTOR WHO WAS MALICIOUSLY TERMINATED.

  5. I’m alarmed by how old-school corrupt the health department is, where bribery and nepotism is rampant and an inspector with as much integrity as Orzel is kicked out for rocking the boat.

    It’s scary to think about. Any SF restaurant we eat at could actually have enough health violations that it should immediately be shut down, but because of bribery, neglect, or ignorance it remains open and might even be bolstered by a high rating by the Department of Public Health. This is a department that is supposed to be protecting our health, but instead is only protecting itself!

  6. I’ve been a REHS and working for local government on and off since 1990. What this inspector found is what makes my job difficult. When “old school” politics and unethical principles dictate the policies and the public see this then the automatic assumption is that all REHS’s are that way.

    I’ve been lucky at the places I’ve worked and haven’t had what this inspector had to deal with.

    Most REHS’s are professionally licensed. When our profession gets tarnished by one individual we all get associated with that act as if it’s just a matter of time before we will do it, unlike other professionals, such as nurses, engineers, police officers.

  7. This is complete bullshit. I don’t trust anyone in that department. We finally get a decent inspector who cares and she is fired because she filed a complaint on an employee who was harassing her. F*&ked Up!
    Go to my site where I list other corrupt SF activities.

  8. Having worked in the past with this person lets just say there is two sides to every story. you all rush to judgement on a story told from one side. until the dept has their side told……..they probably cant due to pending litigation……….we can only quess and talk out of our a%%es

    1. Thank you Mission Loc@L for printing my story. Since this is an anonymous forum, if you have something to say don’t be a coward. My story is out because I feel I have nothing to hide. It is true there are at least 2 sides for every story. I encourage everyone to speak up because if we are quiet and do nothing we are allowing prejudice to exist. And prejudice does not benefit either side.

    2. don: Why are you introducing cryptic innuendo into this? If you have verifiable information, make it known.
      This is an important issue about a department whose function plays an important role in people’s lives.

  9. This woman was fired for working too hard, pure and simple. Her pace and the duration of her inspections were about to expose the rest of the department for being lazy. She did more inspections than the rest of the department in spite of the thorough nature. The should fire her imediate supervisor, hire her back and install her in his or her vacant slot.

  10. Her diligence may have bought her plenty of ill-will from coworkers. Maybe she was jeopardizing a fringe benefit that some of her fellow inspectors had become accustomed to enjoying; a little “inducement” to look the other way, or not so thoroughly ding infractions?
    Bribery can take many forms.

    It’s in the interest of San Franciscans and its huge tourism industry that we get to the core of why she was terminated.

  11. SF is one of my favorite cities, and I’ve had the opportunity of sharing it on several occassions with friends. I made sure everyone noticed the displayed restaurant ratings as a way to know which restaurants were safe. (Displayed health department ratings isn’t done in Texas.)

    It’s unfortunate that unethical behavior and practices have apparently taken over the department. It’s a complete lack of leadership in the department, a mismanagement of pulic funds, and an abuse of the general public (locals and tourists).

    I will have to rethink when I will return for my next visit.

  12. Doesn’t Sandra Orzel have the right to appeal her firing to the civil service commission? Sandra should be in contact with her union, Local 21, (I think) to determine her rights as a fired probationary employee.

    A newly hired employee is not hired permanently if they clearly demonstrate that they cannot perform their duties competently and effectively. From reading the article, it seems Sandra ability to perform effectively is not in doubt.

    1. These comments are a joke. They are all written by Sandra Orzel trying to make herself look good.

      1. Sir or madam —

        I can see where the comments originate from and you are mistaken.

        Best,

        JE

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