Q: I work in a federal government building that has a cafeteria run by a food-service contractor and a commercial-grade refrigerator for those who want to bring lunch. We need to eat here because we can't leave the premises during our work shifts.
I have serious concerns about the safety standards in the cafeteria. They keep bringing in new contractors to run it, and each year it's gotten dirtier, the food's worse and they have fewer workers. Recently, I observed cafeteria workers using the same bowl to scramble eggs for the entire morning. Also, the workers, while wearing gloves, prepare food, take your money and then go back and make more food. Isn't money supposed to be dirty?
The refrigerator we use is sometimes as high as 45 or 48 degrees, but I've been told that home refrigerators are supposed to be kept below 40 degrees or bacteria can multiply.
I haven't been able to get answers to these questions because the workers speak poor English, and the maintenance staff won't do anything about the problem. Are government workers not afforded the same protections as the general public in terms of health at food establishments?
A: Nothing brings workers together like gathering to gripe about cafeteria food. But sometimes it's more than just sour grapes.
"It sounds like there are some problems," said Steven Grover, vice president for food and safety regulatory affairs at the D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.
Grover said he'd be worried if the egg bowl was sitting out for more than four hours and if workers weren't properly removing their gloves and then washing their hands after handling money. Ideally, food preparation and cashier duties should be handled by different people. The refrigerator issue is hard to gauge, though, because the unit's temperature would rise if it were being opened and closed frequently, as it would be during lunch time, and it should return to a lower temperature at off hours. If you're really worried, check the food itself with a thermometer.
Grover said the food-service industry's biggest problem is the labor shortage, which means many companies are hiring workers who are new to the industry. He suggests that the letter writer ask the cafeteria's manager if the company is providing food-safety training. Such courses are available at most community colleges or through the National Restaurant Association's Safe Serve program (1-800-765-2122).
Grover, who formerly served as a state health inspector in Northern Virginia, where he had authority over food facilities at many government properties, including the Cental Intelligence Agency, said generally restaurants and private and public employee cafeterias are regulated by local health authorities. In some cases, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspects them, he said, or specific agencies may have jurisdiction over their own facilities. Start with the local health department.
"The same health code applies" in all kinds of eateries, he said.
Q:I'm an engineer with a degree from Duke University and a master's degree in engineering management from George Washington University. I have had a 30-year career in analysis management, with experience testing military aircraft and submarine equipment, processing satellite information, and programming computers. At 69, I find myself looking for a job.
Not that I'm suggesting age discrimination, but how do I convey considerable experience in a resume without also conveying considerable age? I am anxious to work and am willing to work hard. I am not offended by working for a younger person. I'll share my insights, if asked, and then salute and get on with doing what I am told to do. But there should be some merit attached to my experience in program management and system analysis in the computer field.
In the same vein:
I'm a 46-year-old woman, and I have been working in the computer industry as a software developer for 27 years. I've done work with leading scientists and have published papers and taught on the graduate level. I have excellent references and an exemplary work record.
The project I am working on is winding down, and I recently started my job search. It starts out well. At first, the technical managers are very enthusiastic and ask me to return. Then they give me an application to fill out, which contains questions about the date I attended college. In the next round of interviews, everything seems to change. They seem uninterested in my qualifications and seem to focus on giving me reasons I shouldn't work there. One interviewer recently told me the company's demands would interfere with my family life, and another said I would be better in long-cycle jobs rather than short-term ones.
I think the problem is that after they learn my age I am considered "too old." I look considerably younger than my age, as people tell me I look like I am in my early thirties.
A: Since we started this column about one year ago, the single biggest source of questions and complaints we've received involve perceptions of widespread age discrimination, particularly in technology-based businesses. Age discrimination, of course, is illegal, and people 40 and older who believe they have been unfairly treated can make a formal complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces these laws in the workplace, or the closest municipal human rights commission, or they can contact an employment lawyer.
The deluge of letters on this topic from people in the technology business seems particularly striking because the industry frequently complains about labor shortages. I'd like to hear from readers, both young and old, about whether they believe this problem is real and, if so, why it is occurring. Please send your letters to Kirstin Downey Grimsley at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will keep the letters in confidence, but please include your telephone number so we can reach you if we decide to publish more on this topic.