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Bed Heads

Now that they have badges, Virginia's official mattress inspectors are catching flak.

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But there's a snag. The bedding inspectors' badges are marked with the Great Seal of the Commonwealth, the solemn symbol that appears on official documents and the state flag. However, they didn't check beforehand to see if that use of the seal would be approved by the state.

And Bill Leighty, the governor's chief of staff, is putting his foot down: He says bedding inspectors do not deserve the seal.

"I just felt it was inappropriate to have an official, policelike badge to be a mattress inspector," he explains.

On the other side of the debate is Compliance Safety Officer Margaret Davis, who oversees the inspectors. In an era of heightened suspicion and security, business cards alone don't cut it, Davis says.

"We as a division are particularly security-conscious," she says, "because what we inspect for is concealed stuffing material."

The Code of Virginia says the secretary of the commonwealth shall be the keeper of the seal of the commonwealth, which was adopted July 5, 1776. That office decides whether the seal may be used for any nongovernmental purposes.

Bernard Henderson, who as deputy secretary of the commonwealth deals with seal-use issues "every day," says he doesn't see any problem with the bedding inspectors' badges. "I suppose that since these are state inspectors, employed by the state government, that they are eligible to use the seal for governmental purposes," Henderson says. "We're not the keepers of the badges. We're just the keepers of the seal."

Yet for Leighty the dispute is about more than seals and stuffing. "On one level, it's sort of indicative of everything that's happening in state government right now," he says. "When something is a priority, the first thing they do is create a state agency to fix it." The agency then persists long after the issue is moot, he observes.

Virginia's bedding law was established in 1946, allowing for state inspection of mattresses to prevent the spread of disease from organisms living in the feather bedding. But these days, manufacturers don't use animal products to stuff bedding (with the occasional exception of down). So, Leighty says, the problem of infectious organisms in mattresses no longer seems crucial. Maybe it's time, he suggests, to re-evaluate the state's need for bedding inspectors.

Davis disagrees. Not many people know "what that crazy pillow tag means," she concedes. But she maintains the labeling process is essential to public health. Each tag has an ID number, the name of the importer and if the bedding has been used previously, the date it was sanitized.

To make sure labels are present and legitimate, inspectors make unannounced visits to department stores, mattress dealers, upholsterers and furniture stores. Anything stuffed that people lie or sit upon falls under their jurisdiction.

The two inspectors get results too, Davis says. They find an average of 12 to 18 violations weekly, she says. One recently found 13 labeling violations in a store selling children's bedding. Each violation counts as a misdemeanor, for which the commissioner of public health decides the penalty.

To be an inspector, you don't have to have a degree in epidemiology, Davis says. She looks for candidates with prior experience in inspections or the furniture business who enjoy working with people ("You can meet all kinds out there," she says) and spending almost all of their time on the road. Davis just hired two more inspectors — one a retired military officer, one a woman in her 20s. "We want to do a more thorough job," she says.

Oddly enough, the furniture in Leighty's Capitol office is tagless. Prisoners manufacture the upholstered wooden chairs, he says, and state institutions are exempt from the labeling rules.

"It might have shanks and stuff built-in," jokes his press secretary, Ellen Qualls.

Without the tag, of course, you'd never know. S

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