LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – There’s no denying COVID-19 created a crisis and left many people in need.
Since the pandemic started, some state employees have been getting, catered meals from pricier restaurants at work. Working 4 You learned the tab is now almost $600,000, a bill that’s being picked up by taxpayers from funds meant for COVID relief.
For a year now, delivery drivers have been pulling up to a side door at the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) headquarters building. The drivers have been seen unloading dozens of meals in bags, boxes, and on platters.
An ADH employee brought this to Working 4 You’s attention. They were afraid of retaliation at work so spoke under the conditions of anonymity.
“How many people are involved and have actually been working extended hours that keep them from leaving to eat or bringing their own food?” the ADH employee questioned.
Catered meals at the department have gone to select employees. All the costs are falling on the taxpayer’s dime. Bills in the past year include charges at a high-end restaurant for $113, 875. Another bill for a restaurant totaled $57,772. All of those charges are labeled as “COVID-19 Response.”
The ADH employee questioned, “aren’t there other areas the funding could be directed instead of on employee meals.”
Requests for an interview with ADH were turned down. Instead, a department spokeswoman emailed a statement explaining the pandemic put ADH at its “highest level” of emergency and required some employees to work 12-hour shifts “without the opportunity to leave.”
The email from ADH went on to say management, “made the decision to start providing meals” and at its height lunches went to 170 employees.
According to ADH, the meals are being paid for by Cares Act funding and a federal COVID Crisis grant. ADH says at this point it spend $430,502.
Working 4 You noticed that number didn’t match the charges the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) lists on its transparency website.
DFA looked into the charges and found an additional $156,671 spent by ADH at restaurants last year.
That number, combined with the total ADH says it spent, adds up to $587,173.
The employee’s reaction to that was, “especially after more than a year, it doesn’t seem like a good use of funds that are taxpayer-driven.”
While they can’t change the past, they say they want to expose something that’s gone on too long.
According to ADH, the meals will continue as long as COVID is considered an emergency.
Working 4 You reached out to see if Governor Asa Hutchinson was aware of the spending.
A spokeswoman for his office stated, “I will refer you to the Department of Health.”