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Tainted Food Made Managers Sick During DWP Strike

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The six-figure catering bill presented to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power made some people queasy--but not as sick as the DWP supervisors who ate the food.

County health officials said Wednesday that at least 50 supervisors--who worked around the clock during the recent strike--had been struck with gastrointestinal illness.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services has been called in to investigate the outbreak of fever, diarrhea, cramping and vomiting, and to track down the source. The suspected culprit: food brought in for the sequestered managers.

The outbreak includes three confirmed cases of shigella infection, a bacteria spread through feces or poor food-handling techniques. One manager was hospitalized for two days although he is back at work, and health officials say the illnesses are not serious.

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“It’s not the worst illness but it’s not the best either,” said Dr. Laurene Mascola, chief of the acute communicable disease control unit for the county health department. A number of suppliers brought in food during the strike, but Mascola said officials have not determined which, if any, is to blame.

Beck and Call Catering Service, which served much of the food, has not responded to requests for comment. But Darrell Baker, who called The Times Wednesday and identified himself as a waiter who worked at the DWP plant where the illness broke out, said he would not be surprised if overeating were a factor in the supervisors’ plight.

Seeking to defend the catering company and its $281,000 bill charged to the city, Baker said DWP workers gorged themselves during the strike.

“They were like pigs at a trough,” he said.

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One supervisor devoured an entire pizza, Baker said. Workers would heap their plates so high that food would spill onto the floor. “I’ve never seen people eat like this,” he said.

Michael Moore, DWP’s executive director of public and governmental affairs, said he would not be surprised if the workers ate more than usual but he vehemently defended the supervisors.

“These people were not gorging themselves,” Moore said. “Typically in a stressful situation people eat more. . . . That’s a proven fact. These people were working . . . for the city. They were trying to keep the city whole and now they are being characterized as gorging pigs.”

Earlier this week, several Los Angeles City Council members condemned the cost of the catered meals provided to DWP supervisors by Beck and Call.

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The council members called for an audit of the meal tab--which averaged more than $120 per person each day--and for the imposition of policies that would prevent city departments from doling out too much money during labor unrest.

The amount spent on food during the nine-day strike was actually higher than $281,000. An extra $125,000 was paid to Lizzie’s Confections. Another $75,000 was spent providing free cafeteria food for those who crossed the picket line to work at DWP’s Hope Street headquarters.

DWP officials acknowledge that the costs may appear high at first glance. But they maintain that the prices reflect the difficult circumstances the utility faced during the strike, in which about 500 managers were working around the clock to keep the lights on and the water running.

Makeshift kitchens had to be set up at DWP plants across the city and catering personnel had to be paid around the clock. Food service workers were subject to harassment when they crossed picket lines, the DWP said.

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“The price seems too high but the $120-a-person figure is a distortion,” DWP spokesman Moore said. “We had 20 people on standby to cook meals when required. You don’t have a 24-hour operation like that in a restaurant.

“And clearly a contractor that is going to have to work in these kinds of conditions--they experienced all sorts of harassment and had trucks damaged--are going to have to make a profit.”

The DWP first heard complaints of gastrointestinal infection about two days after the strike ended Sept. 9, according to DWP Medical Director Craig Miller.

The county Department of Health Services was contacted when it was determined that there was “a cluster of managers” exhibiting the symptoms, he said. The shigella outbreak was not confirmed until Wednesday.

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All of the stricken workers were housed at the Boylston distribution yard at 1411 W. 2nd St. in Downtown, where about 120 DWP managers were based during the walkout. Many of the supervisors and catering personnel are being asked by county health workers to provide stool samples.

The majority of the managers did not miss work because of the outbreak, officials said. Those who worked at the plant but have not been affected are most likely no longer at risk of infection, said Miller, the DWP medical director.

Mascola, the county epidemiologist, said the disease is generally caused by improper food handling. Disagreeing with the waiter’s diagnosis, she said overeating would not cause the symptoms, although it could make them worse.


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