Minneapolis health inspectors are juggling caseloads twice as large as recommended by federal officials amid a citywide boom in both restaurants and workplace regulations — and there’s no relief in sight.
The 2018 budget proposed by Mayor Betsy Hodges does not include money for more inspectors who oversee licensed businesses from eateries and hotels to swimming pools, tanning salons and tattoo parlors.
City Health Department officials stressed the need for more staff in an Oct. 13 e-mail to City Council members. With a growing number of businesses to inspect and new city and state regulations to enforce, they said, there simply aren’t enough employees to do what needs to be done.
“The current number of health inspectors does not meet the work demand,” city Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant wrote to the council.
Minneapolis isn’t alone. Local health departments across the country have yet to rebound from recession-era cuts, so they’re still getting by with less money and fewer people.
“There’s only so much capacity that a health department has,” said Laura Hanen, interim executive director at the National Association of City and Council Health Officials (NACCHO). “They’re going to do as much as they possibly can, but something has to give.”
The Minneapolis Health Department employs 19 inspectors. When accounting for just food inspections, the workload equals 638 inspections per person. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends one inspector for every 280 to 320 inspections.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the $1.4 billion budget Dec. 6.
“Minneapolis is a growing city, and with that growth comes the need for ensuring the budget best serves all of our residents,” Hodges spokesman Eric Fought said in a statement. “The City Council has the opportunity between now and adoption to continue to make choices related to the requests and needs of each department.”
The Health Department asked for money in the 2018 budget for three new full-time employees, at a total cost of $110,000 per employee. That would maintain the current workload and save other health department programs from being cut, Environmental Health Director Dan Huff said in an e-mail.
The department has made do with three full-time temporary workers, Huff said. There were nearly 5,300 licenses associated with health inspections in Minneapolis in 2015 — about 1,000 more than in 2013, he said. And individual inspections are becoming more complicated, as new types of restaurants come to the city and both the city and state add regulations.
Following FDA staffing guidelines is voluntary, and participating health departments don’t have to report their progress, so there’s not a clear way to measure inspection staffing levels nationally.
Tough goals to meet
Some departments are better-funded than others, or have fewer licensed facilities to inspect, and so are more easily able to meet federal goals, said Greg Abel, FDA regional retail food specialist for Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
In general, though, understaffing is a widespread problem. More than 55,000 local health department jobs were eliminated nationwide between 2008 and 2016, according to a NACCHO report released this month. To recover from that loss could take more than a decade, Hanen said.
Minneapolis overhauled its inspections program after failing a 2010 Minnesota Department of Health audit, in part because of short staffing. The overhaul included a hiring boost, and between 2011 and 2016, the city added nine inspectors. The current staff of 19 inspectors equals the number on staff in 2002.
Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association, said industry members have noticed that Minneapolis health inspectors are doing more — offering services in multiple languages, for example — but haven’t brought up issues with the number of inspections.
“I talk to restaurant owners and general managers, occasionally to chefs,” McElroy said. “And I can’t imagine a situation in which they’re going to say, ‘We don’t get inspected enough,’ unless it was really unusual.”
McElroy said businesses might raise concerns if they have to pay higher licensing fees, which haven’t gone up in several years, to pay for more health department staffing.
Council Member Andrew Johnson said he and his colleagues may consider raising those fees as they work out the final version of the budget over the next few weeks.
“This is a core service the city provides, and it’s something that’s incredibly important to public health and safety,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to take for granted this work that’s constantly happening, but we all benefit from it.”