Iowa regulatory agency ignores law requiring the routine inspection of Iowa hotels

Iowa Capital Dispatch
October 10, 2022

For the past eight years, a state regulatory agency has violated a law requiring the routine inspection of Iowa’s hotels and motels.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals is required to inspect all hotels within its jurisdiction at least once every two years. Inspections are the sole process by which Iowa enforces regulations intended to protect hotel guests’ health, safety and rights as consumers.

In May, the Iowa Capital Dispatch asked the department why few hotel inspection reports were being posted to the agency’s website given the legal requirement for routine, biennial inspections at all hotels.

At the time, a department spokeswoman said the department “prioritizes inspections based on risk, and conducts opening inspections as well as complaint investigations at hotels and motels.”

The Capital Dispatch asked about the issue again in September, noting that regardless of how inspections were being prioritized, there were relatively few hotels in Iowa that appeared to have been inspected by DIA in the past seven years.

Larry Johnson, director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals. (Photo by Caroline Wright, Accura HealthCare of Stanton)

After several more inquiries, DIA Director Larry Johnson acknowledged last week that the department was not complying with the legal requirement for biennial inspections at each of Iowa’s hotels.

He confirmed that this had been the case for the past eight years, ever since routine inspections were halted in 2014 during the administration of Gov. Terry Branstad.

“You are correct,” Johnson told the Capital Dispatch in a written statement. “The administrative code was not updated eight years ago.”

Hotels and motels, DIA officials said, are still inspected prior to opening. After that, those within DIA’s jurisdiction are inspected only on a complaint basis.

Johnson said Iowa law requires DIA to conduct “ongoing and comprehensive” reviews of its rules, so he “checked with the administrative rules coordinator and this section of the administrative code was planned to be reviewed and updated in the coming month or so.”

Asked why the administrative rules weren’t changed at any time during the past eight years so they would conform to actual departmental practices, he said: “The change occurred eight years ago and neither the rules coordinator or me were here. The rules are scheduled to be reviewed and updated shortly.”

Johnson has served as the head of DIA for three-and-a-half years, since his appointment by Gov. Kim Reynolds on March 1, 2019.

Lobbyists fight “government intrusion” and regulation

According to the Iowa Hotel & Lodging Association, there are 714 hotel, motels and lodges with more than 51,000 guest rooms in Iowa. The association lobbies state lawmakers and says on its website that it has a “robust advocacy agenda” aimed in part at “reducing the regulatory burden on hotels” and guarding against “government intrusion on hotel operations.”

The organization encourages its members to report in writing any “personal relationships” they may have with Iowa’s elected officials so those connections can be used in the industry’s lobbying efforts.

Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association. (Photo courtesy of the IHLA)

Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association says the organization and its members appreciate DIA’s approach to regulation and oversight, which is different, she said, from agencies in other states.

“What I like, and what the industry likes, about the Department of Inspections and Appeals in Iowa is that it’s not a ‘gotcha’ agency,” Dunker said. “To be honest, that is something that as an industry we have appreciated.”

Dunker said she’s “not aware of any specific health issues related to the hotel industry” in Iowa. With regard to bed bugs, she said, “Bed bugs, yeah, it’s a terrible inconvenience and you’re very unhappy,” but, she added, that’s more of a cleanliness issue than a health issue.

According to DIA, there are 572 hotels with an active license in the agency’s jurisdiction. In the last two years, only 166 of them have been inspected.

The Capital Dispatch asked DIA how long some hotels in Iowa have gone without an inspection. The department did not respond. But its online database of inspection reports, which goes back to 2016, suggests many have not been inspected for at least seven years.

For years, DIA has contracted with a dozen or so cities and counties to perform their own inspections on behalf of the state agency. And although those contracts call for local inspectors to comply with the law, they also provide an escape clause with regard to the legally mandated routine hotel inspections. The contracts say DIA will not consider that requirement when evaluating the local inspectors’ performance under the contract.

Some local jurisdictions, such as the city of Dubuque, have taken advantage of that and, like DIA, they haven’t performed routine hotel inspections since 2016 or 2017. Others, such as Scott County, still try to do the inspections, although the pandemic has created a backlog of overdue site visits.

Despite several requests, DIA declined to make anyone on staff available for an interview about the agency’s inspection process.

Johnson, the department director, and a DIA spokeswoman indicated the agency would respond to questions in writing, but then declined to answer some of the questions put forward by the Capital Dispatch.

Soiled bedding, broken smoke alarms, bed bugs

While it’s impossible to say what issues have gone undetected in Iowa’s uninspected hotels, the state’s policy of conducting inspections prior to opening and in response to complaints gives some indication as to the health and safety risks that Iowa’s hotel guests confront.

They include guest-room doors that don’t lock properly, smoke alarms that don’t function, bed bugs and cockroaches, soiled and stained bedding, and garbage that has accumulated underneath beds. Some hotel rooms are rented to guests without an inspector ever having approved them for occupation.

The Motel 6 on Northeast 14th Street in Des Moines. (Photo via Google Earth)

On Sept. 19, a state inspector visited the Motel 6 on 14th Street in Des Moines for the first time in three years. He was there in response to a complaint about smoke alarms and sanitation. The inspector looked at 12 of the hotel’s guest rooms and found that in five of them, the smoke alarms were not working.

In one room, he found animal feces behind the television stand. In another room, he found multiple cockroaches near the refrigerator. The guest laundry area was infested with “multiple flying insects,” the inspector reported, and the mattress protectors in three rooms were visibly soiled, as were the bed sheets in one room.

In May, a state inspector made a preopening visit to the Colfax Inn in Jasper County. She found stained and torn carpeting in at least three rooms, bathroom tile and grout that needed repair, and walls in several of rooms that were soiled or in poor repair. She also found exposed electrical wiring in a laundry room, along with soiled bedding and “pet food debris” inside another room.

At least 22 rooms at the Colfax Inn had broken windows or window screens, and there was “evidence of insects” in more than one room. The furniture was in poor repair, with drawers that did not open or had been repaired with tape, and there were lamp shades and drapes missing from some rooms. Bedding in at least five rooms was found to be stained or in poor repair. The elevator and swimming pool were both out of service.

Inspectors returned to the Colfax Inn last month after DIA fielded two complaints of some kind. The inspector reported: “Complaint is CLOSED and VERIFIED,” but did not elaborate. The hotel was cited for incomplete guest registration records and for renting guest rooms that had not been approved for occupancy.

A few weeks later, the state followed up to see what corrections had been made and found that guest registration records were still incomplete, and the hotel was continuing to rent 18 different guest rooms that had never been approved for occupancy.

The Broadway Motel on Hubbell Avenue in Des Moines. (Photo via Google Earth)

No fines or penalties were imposed. Instead, the manager was reminded that if he intended to continue renting rooms never approved for occupancy, he first needed to contact the state and schedule a preopening inspection.

At the Broadway Motel on Hubbell Avenue in Des Moines, inspectors conducted a preopening inspection on June 20. A DIA inspector found a visible accumulation of debris in six rooms and noted that 17 rooms had either broken smoke alarms, no smoke alarms at all, or the alarms had no batteries.

In addition, the ice buckets in the rooms did not have disposable liners, and yet the hotel did not have the equipment to wash, rinse, and sanitize the buckets – and the inside of the lobby ice machine was visibly soiled. The issue with the smoke alarms was corrected during the inspection and the establishment was granted a license.

Complaints are verified, but no violations cited

Even when complaints are formally deemed verified by state inspectors, it doesn’t mean the hotel will be cited or penalized for regulatory violations.

The Super 8 Motel in Ankeny, Iowa. (Photo via Google Earth)

For example, in September, inspectors visited the Super 8 on Delaware Avenue in Ankeny in response to a “verified” complaint about pest control, but then filed a report listing zero violations. The report itself includes conflicting information, stating: “Establishment was not aware of complaint and has had no other recent complaints. Manager states hotel was made aware of complaint from guests. Hotel immediately shut down room and called Orkin for service.”

The report goes on to say two rooms were “shut down for two days” and that “no pest evidence was observed during the inspection.”

Days earlier, a state inspector visited the American Inn & Suites in Peosta. The inspector reported she was there in response to “a non-illness complaint” of some undescribed nature.

She inspected three rooms and reported the complaint, whatever it pertained to, had been verified, but then cited the hotel for no violations. “Rooms 101 had an obvious malodor upon entering room,” she reported. “Room 108 had a slight malodor upon entering the room. Room 105 had a very slight malodor upon entering. All three rooms were in the process of being cleaned.”

Cities, counties can perform more frequent inspections

Not all hotels in Iowa are inspected by DIA. Some are inspected by city or county health agencies under contract with DIA.

The Woodspring Suites on Elmore Circle in Davenport, Iowa. (Photo via Google Earth)

The reports filed by inspectors in those jurisdictions shed additional light on the types of violations that may go uncorrected at hotels that are subject to DIA’s oversight.

For example, the Scott County Health Department visited the Woodspring Suites on Elmore Circle in Davenport on Sept. 30. The inspector found cockroaches of “all life cycles” – babies and adults – in rooms 215, 220, 313, 334, 425 and 411. Those rooms were ordered closed pending correction of the problem.

Heavy cockroach presence remains.

– Scott County inspector's report on Woodspring Suites

In addition, the county inspector noted a “large accumulation” of dust and debris in the laundry room, stated there were “walls peeling back” in the kitchen area of several rooms, and said five rooms were in need of cleaning under the beds, in the kitchen areas, and in the bathrooms.

The inspector also found stains on the bedding and mattress in one room and noted that another room had a toilet that was continually running. The hotel was shut down for one day to allow the cockroach issue to be addressed by a pest-control company.

On Monday of last week, the inspector returned and reported few of the problems had been corrected. “Heavy cockroach presence remains,” he reported.

‘Bed bugs crawling all over our bed’

One of the biggest concerns consumers have when booking a hotel room is bed bugs.

The tiny insects multiply at a rapid rate and can easily infiltrate clothing and luggage and be carried by hotel guests back to their home, where extermination can cost $2,000 or more.

State records indicate that for three years the Rodeway Inn in Sergeant Bluff struggled with a bed bug problem, despite the involvement of inspectors from the Siouxland District Health Department, which oversees hotels in that area of the state.

In June 2017, a Siouxland inspector went to the hotel in response to a complaint and confirmed the presence of bed bugs in various rooms, citing evidence of bed bug shells, the “blood spotting” on bedding that is associated with the insects, and live bugs that were seen on headboards and mattresses.

The Rodeway Inn in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. (Photo via Google Earth)

Six rooms were ordered closed. “Due to the number of rooms, owner/management will be required to hire a professional pest control company with experience in bed bug treatment,” the inspector stated in his report. “If needed, will discard any infested furniture, bedding or draperies.”

A few days later, the inspector returned and reported that he spoke to a regional manager for Rodeway Inn and learned that of the 52 rooms, seven were infested. Bed bugs had been found on the beds, on the floor and the headboards.

New headboard and mattress encasements were ordered, but the manager told the inspector only the seven infested rooms were treated and that she had not reviewed the inspector’s recommendation for a more comprehensive extermination effort.

Ten days after that visit, the inspector returned to the Rodeway Inn and examined four rooms. No live pests were found, but there were “signs of dead pests, which appear to be bed bugs in the mattress encasements.” Also, there were larvae and dead pests found on mattresses and headboards.

Two months later, in August 2017, the inspector reviewed invoices from a pest control service, which had been called to the hotel in response to additional complaints of possible bed bugs.

In November 2019, inspectors returned in response to another bed bug complaint. The room in question and those adjacent to it were closed pending treatment.

In June 2020, the inspector was back after fielding a bed-bug complaint from a guest who provided evidence in the form of photos. The complaint was deemed verified and three to four rooms were shut down pending treatment.

I have to be honest. We really consider them partners.

– Jessica Dunker, hotel industry representative, commenting on state regulators

In December of that year, an inspector returned and found no issues with bed bugs. In June of this year, an inspector returned in response to a verified food-related complaint and, again, no issues with bugs or pests were noted.

Bed bugs also appear to have been an issue at a Clive hotel that was the subject of a very detailed, but anonymous, online complaint last month. It appears that DIA has not inspected the hotel at any time during the past seven years.

In her complaint, a woman wrote that she and her family of five were staying at the hotel on Sept. 3, and she “could not fall asleep due to constant feeling of little bites. While reading on my phone, I could see in the dark from my phone-light, out of my peripheral, a tiny bug crawling on my pillow next to me. I woke my husband up, turned the lights on, and we both discovered lots of bed bugs crawling all over our bed, under our bed sheets, under our pillows and on top of our pillows, crawling along the wall behind our bed frame and blood spots on our bed from the bug bites. We took pictures and videos.”

She reported that she and her family moved to a different room and then spent most of the night washing their clothes in the hotel’s coin-operated washers. The hotel apologized for the inconvenience and refunded the full cost of the family’s stay, she said.

“The entire experience was horrifying,” she reported. “We are starting to see red bug bites on our bodies. Horrible experience and a nightmare.”

Dunker of the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association says she hopes the Department of Inspections and Appeals continues with its complaint-driven process of inspecting Iowa’s hotels.

“We consider them partners,” she said of DIA. “I have to be honest. We really consider them partners. I can’t say that about every organization we work with, but I can say that about them.”

Bed bug complaints lead to lawsuits

Occasionally, Iowa hotels are sued by guests over alleged bed bug infestations. Among the lawsuits:

Cedar Rapids: Anne Hernandez, a resident of Las Vegas, was in Iowa last Christmas and stayed five days at the Comfort Inn & Suites in Cedar Rapids. While there, she claims, she was bitten by bed bugs and after examining the sheets and bedding she discovered bed bug carcasses. The hotel allegedly denied her request for assistance in changing the sheets and bedding. In June, she sued the hotel’s owners, who have yet to file a response in the case.

Grinnell: In November 2016, Carolina Campos-Dorce of Albuquerque, New Mexico, stayed at the Quality Inn & Suites in Grinnell where, she later claimed, she “woke up to the feeling of bugs crawling” on her face, behind her ears and on her body. She allegedly reported the matter to hotel workers who accompanied her back to the room and verified blood spotting on the sheets and bugs in the bed. She later sued the hotel, claiming she was left with 98 bites on her body and had to discard her boots, coat and several other items of clothing. After a year of litigation, the case was settled out of court. Three months before Campos-Dorce stayed at the hotel, state inspectors visited the business in response to a complaint of bed bugs and ruled the complaint unverified.

Coralville: In 2019, Scott Hamlin of Chandler, Arizona, stayed four days at the Days Inn on 1st Avenue on Coralville. He says he eventually discovered more than 100 bed-bug bites on his body and he sued the hotel, which denied any wrongdoing. That year, however, the Johnson County Health Department conducted three separate visits at the hotel and, in each case, verified the presence of bed bugs. “Extensive evidence of what appears to be dead bed bugs in multiple life stages, and what appear to be bed bug eggs found on box springs and behind headboards,” the inspector reported. “This is the third inspection in a row finding evidence of live specimens.” Hamlin’s lawsuit was settled out of court.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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