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Bill to reduce required hotel inspections clears Iowa House

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Bill to reduce required hotel inspections clears Iowa House

Feb 27, 2024 | 7:41 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
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Bill to reduce required hotel inspections clears Iowa House
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The Iowa Department of Inspections, Appeals and Licensing oversees hotel inspections throughout the state. (Photo via Canva; logo courtesy of DIAL)

The Iowa House passed legislation Tuesday that would shift hotel and motel inspection requirements from biennial inspections to inspecting hotels typically on the basis of complaints.

In the past decade, the Iowa Department of Inspections, Appeals and Licensing’ has repeatedly violated the law requiring routine inspections of hotels every two years. House File 2426 would codify the department’s method of pursuing inspections based on both complaints and risk-based assessments to determine which facilities should be prioritized, removing the previous biennial requirement.

The legislation, passed 64-33, was amended to remove language eliminating a DIAL requirement to conduct annual inspections of businesses permitted to remove or encapsulate asbestos. The original bill would have only required inspections in cases where a complaint or referral is filed, injuries or accidents occur or if a “media notification” alerts the department that a danger exists.

Rep. Jeff Cooling, D-Cedar Rapids, said the amendment took a “really, really bad proposed bill” to just a “really bad” bill. He criticized Iowa DIAL for not following current law requiring inspections every two years, and the lack of oversight and inspections.

While Iowa has 580 licensed hotels subject to inspections by the the state department, DIAL has inspected an average of 105 annually in the last three years, he said.

Cooling said this may largely be because of inadequate staffing — there are currently 22 inspectors at DIAL, who also inspect food establishments, food processing plants and home food processing establishments in addition to hotels and motels. That leaves each inspector with an average 542 establishments to inspect.

He said there were many cases showing the need for government review of these businesses.

Cooling shared stories of hotel inspections that found serious issues at establishments — like a 2022 inspection of a Des Moines motel that found smoke alarms were not working in five of the 12 rooms inspected, or a complaint about bed bugs at a Clive hotel that had not been inspected at any time in the seven years prior.

These issues — as well as many other reported violations — have come through investigations using DIAL’s “current practice” of complaint-based inspections, Cooling said, while being out of compliance with Iowa Code.

“So the biggest thing that that comes to my mind is the fact that it’s impossible to say what issues have gone undetected in Iowa’s uninspected hotels,” Cooling said. “And the state’s policy of conducting inspections prior to opening as is required … and in response to complaints, give some indication that health and safety risks at Iowa’s hotels (and that they) are not up to code for guests’ comfort.”

The bill’s floor manager Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Independence, said he did not want to imply “there aren’t bad operators, or that maybe some of our operators aren’t taking care of business,” but that his own experience of hotels in Iowa have largely been positive.

“I’m not sure where these hotels are at and those do sound horrible, yep,” Johnson said. “But I think in the big picture of things, those hotels that are operating like that, their clients probably aren’t returning. I’ve had bad experiences in hotels, out of state — I don’t go back. That is my consumer choice.”

During January subcommittee meetings on the bill, advocates with hotel and lodging groups spoke in support of the legislation, saying that the state’s hotel industry thinks the complaint-based inspection system works well. But others, like Peter Hird, a lobbyist for the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, said there is still a need for routine inspections, as many Iowans staying at hotels do not think to file a complaint with the state when they encounter issues like mold or bed bugs at the place they’re staying.

Johnson also spoke in support of DIAL inspectors, who he said are “doing the absolute best they can” in inspections with only 22 staff available.

The bill must first clear the Senate before going to the governor for final approval. The bill’s companion, Senate File 2203, passed through the committee process in early February.