Allegheny Co. COVID-19 response team investigates restaurants, bars: What we know about it

ALLEGHENY CO., Pa. — Allegheny County created a COVID-19 response team to investigate restaurants and bars to ensure they follow the proper COVID-19 safety rules and regulations.

Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle wanted to know more about this team, who they are, their qualifications and what they’re paid. He submitted a right-to-know request through Allegheny County to obtain that information. A month later, he received the contract that outlines more details about the COVID-19 response team.

The county outsourced the hiring to a temporary staffing firm that’s worked with the county in the past. The company is called Integrative Staffing Group and is based in Coraopolis.

Target 11 reached out to the company, but they declined to comment and referred us to Allegheny County. The county also declined to comment but did provide information.

The documents obtained by Target 11 revealed that Allegheny County has had a $1.6 million contract with Integrative Staffing Group to provide temporary staffing to various county departments.

Earle reached out to Allegheny County councilmember Bethany Hallam, who said she was unaware  of this arrangement and expressed concern.

“The first time I found out about this is whenever you reached out to me. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all. A lot of the process that we’ve been seeing taking place, especially regarding the COVID-19 response has kept us completely in the dark,” Hallam said.

Hallam said she believes full-time union workers should have been hired to fill the COVID-19 response teams.

“We are supposed to be the county who favors blue collar workers and union jobs, and instead we’re contracting out to temporary employees where we can almost guarantee that they’re not being treated with the same respect and held up to the same standards that our county union employees are,” she said.

According to the staffing agency’s job posting, workers on the COVID-19 response team are paid $15 per hour plus mileage. Candidates must be at least 21 years old with a background in inspections, security, quality assurance or secret shopping.

The team is responsible for going to restaurants and bars in Allegheny County to make sure they are following COVID-19 safety precautions, including wearing masks, social distancing and limiting capacity.

A county spokesperson told Target 11 that new hires go through both in-house and field training before they are sent out on their own. They are taught what to look for, and how to educate establishments where they find violations.

After surveying restaurants, team members fill out a report that’s posted on the county website for public viewing. Restaurants that don’t make changes could be temporarily shut down.

Restaurant owners like Rod Ambrogi said they have nothing to hide and welcome the inspections by the COVID-19 response team.

“I understand they have to do their job. I welcome them to come check our kitchen facility sanitation and let them know I’m following the CDC guidelines,” he said.

Ambrogi owns Al’s Cafe in Bethel Park, where the team found several violations including some employees not properly wearing masks. During a follow up inspection, the issue had been corrected.

Councilmember Hallam said the COVID-19 response team members have a very important job with the power to determine a restaurant’s fate.

“It’s a very important position and one of the things that’s very concerning to me is I’ve been reading through a lot of the reports that we’ve been seeing especially in regards to local bars and restaurants and the way that I’ve been seeing these places be evaluated are inconsistent from location to location. And the fact that I now know that we’re using contracted temporary worker makes a lot of sense because these aren’t unionized county employees that are held to a specific standard,” she said.

Earle also discovered that the contract with the staffing company expired back in January but was extended until this coming January so the county could create the COVID-19 response team.

It’s unclear if the contract will be extended into the new year.