City restaurant owners could get a break from surprise health inspections if a proposed New York State bill passes.
Details of the bill, the “Restaurant Owner Whistleblower Protection Act” were outlined Tuesday at Flushing Town Hall in Queens.
The bill, which was introduced earlier this month by Assemblymember Ron Kim and Senator Jose Peralta, both Democrats representing Queens, would give restaurant owners up to three opportunities to deny inspections. It would also establish an independent oversight body to receive complaints regarding health inspectors and would allow unhappy restaurant owners to request a different inspector.
Peralta called the legislation an important step in leveling the playing field for small businesses. “Overzealous health inspectors often try to shut down the economic engines of local communities,” he said Tuesday. “I witnessed this myself seven years ago when a health inspector just walked right in to the kitchen without asking the owner.”
In New York City, restaurant inspections are conducted by the Department of Health. Under the proposed law, complaints against inspectors would be registered through a hotline and a website available in nine different languages including Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish. Details of such complaints, and the response to them, would be made public through an annual report.
Denying an inspection would come at a cost. A restaurant would have to pay $75 the first time it turned away an inspector. A second denial would cost $150 and a third $250.
Under current law, restaurant owners cannot deny inspections. Restaurants that are unhappy with their grade can request a re-inspection within eight or more days. They also have a right to file complaints with the Food Service Establishment Ombuds Office at the City Health Department. Ninety-two percent of city restaurants have an A rating, according to Health Department dataOut of these, 62 percent received an A on the initial inspection.
The statewide bill is aimed at cities with a population of one million or more. This effectively makes New York City its only target.
“Some inspectors are simply on a power trip and they act unprofessionally,” said Kim, who represents the 40th District, which includes areas of Flushing and Whitestone. “Sometimes they come in at the busiest hours, not keeping their schedules and sitting for hours just to bully the restaurant owners.”
At the press conference, 21 small business owners and workers joined the two lawmakers to show support for the bill. Queens Chamber of Commerce executive director, Thomas J. Grech, also attended.
Assemblymember Clyde Vanel, a Democrat representing District 33 in Queens, is a co-sponsor of the bill and a former restaurateur. He said small businesses are the backbone of New York’s economy. “I understand the difficulties in running and operating a restaurant in New York,” he said.
Pisit Charoonsriswad, president of the Thai Restaurant Association, and owner of Thai Select in Manhattan, said the current law needs to be standardized. “Each one [inspector] that comes in has their own rules,” he said. “It drives us crazy!”
David Oh, general manager of Jongro BBQ, a Korean restaurant in Manhattan, described a surprise inspection last September that downgraded the restaurant from an A to B. “He came in on a Friday night at 10:30,” said Oh, complaining about the late hour of the visit. “It was a power trip, not to actually implement regulations.” According to the Health Department, the restaurant was given a B-grade based on violations including flies in the food facility, tobacco use in food preparation area and improper usage of sanitized equipment.
A spokesperson for the New York City Health Department had no comment on the bill. Kim and Peralta hope to push it through during the current session.