Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Health Codes Violations, Single Motherhood, and the Breakfast I had Last Week

I'm currently teaching Economics 349: the Economics of Social Problems. I thought I'd use our department blog to help raise some examples of the types of issues that arise in the Calgary area which relate (even tangentially) to the course. (To those students in the course, some of this stuff may serve as fodder for term papers.)

Last week, some friends and I had breakfast at Nellie's Cosmic Cafe on 17th Ave SW in Calgary. We were pretty shocked to learn a day or so later that the restaurant chain had been fined $60,000 for health code violations. We all had the same thoughts: Eww! This was one of our favorite restaurants. (Note: In the sense of fairness, I want to mention that according to news reports nobody reported getting sick from the food at Nellie's and no personal claims were filed. The fines were based on the findings of health inspectors.)

Among my friends we talked quite a bit about this case (waiting a requisite 48 hours before making any jokes about it). When we thought about the problem, there are a number of things that struck us.

Basically, the health code protects "the public" from the externalities associated with poor workplace practices in a restaurant. However, we had a couple of questions about the chain of events. I'm sure there are others, but these jump to mind as worthy of discussion.

First, the restaurant had apparently been warned for over a decade. Why did it take so long for investigators to act? It raises the issue as to whether the law is being equally applied to all. A local eatery in my neighborhood received a fine after one visit by an inspector last year, and for something more innocuous than what Nellie's was apparently fined for. What does this say about the application of these laws?

Second, in her statement the owner of Nellie's mentioned "she was devastated by the charges and that it was difficult for her, a single mother, to keep proper monitoring of all the locations." I know of several single-mothers who were somewhat insulted by this statement. At the risk of sounding like a real jerk (which I probably am), it suggests that single mothers are less able to, in this case, manage a business than other individuals i different circumstances (e.g., married mothers). We often see examples of certain groups (here, single mothers) being stereotyped by more salient and visible examples of individuals of their "type" (e.g., the single-mother owner of Nellie's). In making this statement, what information is communicated and what inferences might others make about single mothers writ large?



gisell said...

I am currently in said Ecomonics 349 class(good tip on the term paper). I have also spent a few years slinging pints 'n pasta and have seen my fair share of dodgy joints.

My question is, how is a business able to continue to be approved for more business licenses for new locations when there is a long standing record of current health code violations in the restaurants they currently own? Don't get me wrong-I was,(am?)a huge fan of Sundays at Nellie's; black coffee, huevos rancharos,and no line up.

A former employee of Nellie's stated that one reason for the lack of any health concern from the staff was the unwillingness for the owner to pay staff for the extra 1/2 hour or so that is needed to properly clean at the end of the shift. Paying the minimum wage, the lowest someone is legally allowed to pay a person in this province, and still hospitality employers continue to be the worst offenders for treating their staff, and ultimatley their customers worse than the crud the health inspectors found behind the stove.

All the systems and checks failed. Faith and trust was severed, and a little part of me died realizing I am going to have to make my own breakfast for awhile.

Melissa said...

As a former Econ 349 student, restaurant worker, and current single mother, I would just like to add that I have many occasions where I have been judged based on my 'single mother' status. Although originally shocked, I have come to realize most people are not socially advanced enough to move past such things.
As a former rest. worker, I can also confirm that inspectors apply the code 'at their discretion.' Several places I won't eat at pass inspections regularly.
I completely support affirmative action (discussion for another time) but this business owner's indirect call for special treatment to set aside standards because of her parenting situation is idiotic.
It is frustrating that single mom status only comes up in this type of context. Although I don't expect special treatment, there are social and economic barriers that do exist for single parents, and these are rarely addressed in an educated manner within the media or public spheres. Don't confuse this with legit needs for
affirmative action!
PS Nellie's food is 'average' at best, trust me you can learn to make breakfast at home and stay in your PJ's