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 let go 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 dismissed 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.
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.
After Orzel was let go, 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 let go 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.