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Are USDA Meat, Poultry Inspectors Working Too Many Hours?

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WASHINGTONA government report raises concerns that egg, meat and poultry inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working long hours, potentially compromising public health because they are too fatigued to carry out "crucial food-safety related tasks".

More than 400 inspectors with the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) averaged in excess of 120 hours every two weeks (pay period) for the entire fiscal year 2012, according to an audit report by USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The inspectors are responsible for ensuring the nation's egg, meat and poultry products are accurately labeled, safe and wholesome.

Nearly 2,600 FSIS inspectors worked an average of 95 hours during a pay period, OIG found. One inspector worked a whopping average of 179 hours during a pay period while three inspectors averaged more than 160 hours and 14 averaged more than 150 hours.

Under a labor contract, field inspectors with FSIS are generally prohibited from working more than 10 or 12 hours per day, the report said. Arianne Perkins, a spokeswoman with FSIS, noted consumer safety off-line inspectors can work 12 hours a day while on-line inspectors can only work 10 hours a day excluding lunch.

"However, we found that some inspectors are working these hours six and even seven days a week," OIG revealed. "Because of these extended hours, OIG believes FSIS inspectors could have decreased productivity, which might impair their ability to perform functions that are critical to public food safety."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) have warned about the dangers of long work hours, including the potential of reduced productivity and increased risk of error and injuries.

FSIS officials told OIG they were unaware of the long hours but "doubted that this extended overtime would negatively affect the agency's inspectors." Still, officials acknowledged they need a better understanding on how overtime is impacting their employees, according to the report.

The agency's positionthat it is unaware of the overtime being workedis "nothing but a lie" because FSIS must approve inspectors' timesheets, said Stanley Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions (National Joint Council), which is affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO and represents roughly 6,200 FSIS inspectors.

What's more, FSIS approves the schedules that permit the nation's 6,300 regulated slaughter and processing plants to operate 12-hour shifts, often 24 hours a day, Painter said. Inspectors must work these same shifts as part of their assignments, he said.  

"We know there are shortages in the country of inspectors," said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign with Food & Water Watch, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.

But at least some inspectors don't seem to mind the long days.

Fourteen of 19 inspectors (in and outside the union) who averaged more than 120 hours each pay period told OIG they were aware of the long hours before they accepted the job yet they were in favor of them or the compensation that comes with OT. According to the report, the other five inspectors who did not belong to the union revealed "they do not like working as much overtime as they do and approached their supervisors about working fewer hoursall five were told they had no option but to work the hours."

Many inspectors who work 12-hour shifts are in the GS-9 pay scale, meaning they earn roughly $30 per hour, Painter said. They are entitled to time and a half ($45.00 per hour) for each hour of OT. That can add up to thousands of dollars in additional pay over the course of a year.

Painter said FSIS has convened a task force to more closely examine the overtime issue, a move that resulted from the OIG report. He has proposed a solution: prevent corporations from working 12-hour shifts six and seven days a week; and hire more inspectors.

"When I said that to them, it was crickets chirping and pens dropping," he said.  "They don't want to go up before these corporations and tell them you can't work."

Perkins, the FSIS spokeswoman, asserted the agency "does not compromise when it comes to food safety."

"In response to this audit, the agency agreed to conduct an internal review and, if necessary, an internal audit to include the effects of extended hours of work when reviewing employee fitness for duty," she stated in an email.

"The agency has measures already in place to ensure that our employees are meeting their performance requirements.  FSIS front-line employees conduct daily inspection verification activities and are closely supervised by multiple layers of supervision in-plant, as well as within a circuit (multiple establishments make up an assignment in a circuit), and District Office," Perkins continued. "These layers of supervision focus on different aspects of the job and worker performance.  During these supervisory reviews, FSIS notes the inspection activity and any performance concerns requiring adjustment, training, or correlation."

Earlier this year, FSIS began generating overtime reports that are shared with and reviewed by OFO (Office of Field Operations) senior leadership, district managers, deputy district managers, and supervisory resource management analysts, Perkins said. 

The agency will develop procedures "for these managers to provide the appropriate action to take, within the limitations of the Labor Management Agreement, in an effort to address excessive overtime hours worked in a pay period," she stated.

Painter maintained inspectors rarely have the option to get somebody to cover an overtime shift. Under the contract between FSIS and the National Joint Council, he said, inspectors are responsible for covering their assignments. They have the option to find a replacement to work overtime but that person has to come at no expense to the agency; that's an impossibility in many locations because there is no replacement within corporate town or city limits, he said.

Perkins pointed to a clause in the labor contract, which is intended to provide an employee "sufficient relief" from overtime if that individual is required to work at least six days per day and has worked for at least three consecutive weeks. But FSIS managers may be under pressure to keep employees working long hours. The 12-hour shifts relieve the agency of the need to hire a third inspector to work during a 24-hour period and give it the right to bill regulated facilities for any overtime incurred, Painter said.

FSIS provides inspection services to establishments for up to eight hours per shift without charging them during a 40-hour work week. These facilities, however, are required to reimburse the agency for overtime.

Yet it's possible American taxpayers rather than the egg, meat and poultry industry are footing the bill for millions of dollars in overtime. During an analysis in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, OIG discovered 162,000 hours recorded in a web-based timekeeping system (called WebTA) were not reflected as being billed into a database (known as Feebill) that houses FSIS' billing information. Consequently, FSIS potentially failed to bill the industry for up to $10.6 million, the report said. The same report also found the agency may be actually overbilling the industry by up to an estimated $4.7 million because more than 72,000 hours recorded in Feebill could not be found in the original WebTA data.

"I am just totally disgusted with the mismanagement this agency is going through right now," said Corbo of Food & Water Watch.

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