Goofy Oversight

Illustration by Bob AulGovernment inspectors routinely close restaurants where they've discovered dust, airborne mold and vermin infestation. But employees at the Disneyland Hotel restaurant Goofy's Kitchen say those conditions persisted for years while inspectors did nothing.

Just as critics have charged that Anaheim police once gave the park a free hand in dealing with crime and medical emergencies, employees say county health-agency and state workplace-safety officials have held Goofy's Kitchen to a different, lower standard than restaurants outside the resort.

Goofy's Kitchen employees say they spent years complaining—to restaurant managers, union officials and outside authorities—before finally stirring health inspectors to action with graphic snapshots of moldy surfaces and backed-up floor drains near the kitchen. (Two of those photos can be viewed at the following website: Four of those employees have filed workmen's-compensation claims alleging the Disneyland restaurant made them sick. A current employee claims the restaurant is still moldy and “gross” and that rats are still being trapped and killed there on a regular basis. (See “'Rats and Rat Shit Everywhere,'” Sept. 13).

In a Sept. 17 statement faxed to the Weekly, Disneyland spokesperson Chela Castao said the Disneyland Resort strongly denies the allegations made by Goofy's Kitchen employees. “It is important to note that the information you are referencing is unreliable and conflicts with objective records from government agencies,” she wrote. The Orange County Department of Health, Local 681 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, the Disneyland Resort's internal safety and health department and “an outside independent health and safety firm” had each investigated those claims “and all concluded that there was no evidence of mold, rodent infestation or poor ventilation.”

Referring to a union grievance concerning a dead rat that was cited in a previous Weekly article, Castao said the union “has given us every indication that they are withdrawing the grievance. . .We pride ourselves on providing a clean, healthy and safe environment for both our guests and cast members and will continue to do so in the future.”

Public records indicate the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) and the county Health Care Agency (HCA) inspected Goofy's Kitchen on several occasions in the past year. While the HCA has yet to respond to a records request, documents obtained from independent sources show that after receiving numerous employee complaints—as well as photographs depicting moldy surfaces on the restaurant's floor tiles and on an inside wall of an icebox—the HCA inspected Goofy's Kitchen four times between October 2001 and January 2002. The Weekly has obtained highly redacted excerpts of the agency's inspection reports, which state that “no evidence” of any mold could be found.

Employees allege that's because officials alerted Disneyland to impending inspections.

“We always know when [health inspectors] are coming,” said a current restaurant employee who asked to remain anonymous.

When the Weekly called the DOSH's Anaheim office asking for records on Goofy's Kitchen, the receptionist chuckled and said she was aware of numerous worker complaints regarding the restaurant. “Isn't that the restaurant with the rats?” she asked. But after searching the office's records, she said she could find no documents on Goofy's Kitchen. At her recommendation, we faxed her office a request for the records.

Ana Marin, DOSH district manager for Anaheim, wrote back on Sept. 6, stating that she found “no records” pertaining to Goofy's Kitchen. We called Marin to point out that we already had copies of letters from the agency to Disneyland in March of this year. One of those letters stated that the agency had “closed its file” on the restaurant after Disneyland said the restaurant was clean.

How could there be no records from a file that clearly exists? Is it the agency's habit to close investigations merely because an employer assures them no investigation is necessary?

A DOSH official suggested we call Dean Fryer, the agency's public-affairs director.

According to Fryer, his agency conducts three annual inspections of all restaurants, including Goofy's Kitchen. If DOSH officials receive serious complaints about a particular restaurant, he said, it typically follows up with a surprise inspection.

“Depending on the response we get from the employer, we make a determination whether it seems it's been taken care of or if we need to send an inspector out to look,” he said.

Fryer acknowledged that airborne mold is a serious health issue but said the DOSH had no policy stating the agency had to inspect a restaurant if it received such complaints. But a Feb. 25 letter from the DOSH to Disneyland suggests otherwise. In it, DOSH officials told Disneyland that workers had complained about “unsanitary conditions . . . due to excessive, visible mold contamination . . . resulting from sewer backups and water leaks.” If confirmed, the DOSH said, these were violations of state workplace-safety laws.

The letter also warned Disneyland about “tripping hazards due to slippery conditions from sewer backups,” use of “unmarked chemicals” by restaurant employees and a lack of proper ventilation. “The Division has not determined whether the hazards, as alleged, exist at your workplace, and at this time, the Division does not intend to conduct an inspection of your workplace,” the letter states.

Current and former workers expressed frustration at the lack of attention to their frequent health complaints. “We tried to go through the health department and not the media,” said the current restaurant employee. “I really like my job, but it is not safe. With Disney, you are fighting against a wall.”

And Disneyland appears to be getting some high-level help.

“The health department people would contact Disney and let them know they were coming in,” alleged Margie Strike, a former restaurant employee and shop steward for Local 681 of the Hotel N Restaurant Employees Union, which represents Goofy's Kitchen workers. “They'd walk past the mold and look the other way.”

The DOSH closed its investigation on March 27, but a May 7 letter from Disneyland to the agency indicates that health complaints continued. Instead of inspecting the restaurant, the DOSH continued to allow Disneyland to respond to those complaints—which dealt with the presence of gnats at one of the restaurant's unventilated side stations—in writing. In the letter, Disneyland reported that it had used a pesticide spray to get rid of the gnats.

Strike stopped working at Goofy's Kitchen four years ago, but she'll never forget the gnats.

“There were always barflies that flew around the bar,” she said. “You had to close your mouth near the side stations so as not to end up with these little flies in your mouth. Somebody bought a Venus fly trap as a joke and put it right there in the restaurant.”

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