Council 2 Organizes to Help Save Tacoma-Pierce County Public Health Departmentby Council 2 on May 7, 2021
Local public health departments have played an irreplaceable role throughout the pandemic – providing information, supplies, and support, coordinating COVID response, and now helping lead efforts to distribute the vaccines that are key to returning life to some sense of normalcy.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has been essential to keeping communities safe in Washington’s second-most populated county. Despite Pierce County’s large size, the Public Health Department has helped keep cases down, averaging just 13 per 100,000 people in the last week prior to publication. Council 2 is proud to have 125 members who are public health workers in this department.
Last year, as the pandemic raged, Council 2 and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department management came to an unusually quick agreement on a new two-year contract. Management recognized the sacrifices made daily by their employees, and was willing to agree to a strong contract without a drawn out negotiation.
But before workers and Council 2 members could fully appreciate their new deal, their livelihoods – and the region’s public health – were threatened. The Pierce County Council surprisingly proposed a new resolution that would dissolve and eliminate the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, replacing it with a ‘Pierce County Health Department’ with a board consisting of the members of the County Council.
The existing department benefits from more than just strong collaboration between levels of government – it also receives robust funding from the city of Tacoma – more than $1.15 million. Moving forward with this effort would have defunded public health services at a time where they’ve never been more urgent in the history of the 38-year-old department.
With a 4-3 Republican-supported majority on the Council – the ordinance dissolving the public health department looked destined to pass – potentially putting the region’s health at risk and undercutting Council 2 members’ new contract agreement for improved wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions.
So Council 2, its members, other local unions, and the community got to work. Together, they organized support across the county and made their voices heard through official communications, emails and calls to councilmembers, as well as a protest on December 8th outside the County City Building in Tacoma – a show of force that demonstrated the strength of opposition against the measure, including from management and in the form of labor solidarity.
The dissolution ordinance still appeared to have the votes to pass, but Governor Jay Inslee took the remarkable step of issuing a proclamation stopping the termination of combined local health department operations until the pandemic subsided.
“This pause will allow public health employees to focus their energies on the most challenging chapter yet in our pandemic response,” Inslee said at the time. “They cannot be frustrated in their work by extraneous debate.”
Similarly, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department Director of Health Dr. Anthony Chen called the measure “an unfortunate distraction” from their pandemic response efforts.
In response, the Pierce County Council did not drop the resolution – instead, they modified it to still dissolve the operation, but for it to take effect after the pandemic ended, a brazen attempt to bypass the Governor’s order. As the vote for the ordinance approached, all signs pointed to it passing, but Council 2 and the department staff kept up their efforts.
At a hearing for the ordinance, Council 2 Assistant Director for Legislative Affairs Abbie Zulock said, “This kind of legislation is NOT how we thank these dedicated public servants for their service throughout this historic pandemic. The instability a decision like this would create for these workers in the middle of a pandemic is demoralizing and disrespectful.”
Recalling how she has relied on the health department for fast responses and support for other Pierce County workers with COVID questions or exposure, Zulock added, “Pierce County’s staff are safer because of the AFSCME Local 120 workers at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. An attempt to defund this agency...is a disgraceful move that will harm not only your constituents, but the workers who serve those constituents.”
Zulock wasn’t alone – others from across the county testified in opposition to the misguided and poorly timed proposal, making clear the impact that the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has on its residents and the risk posed by its dissolution.
This testimony clearly made an impact, because when the time came for the vote, Councilmember Pam Roach (R-Sumner), the sponsor of the ordinance, voted down her own legislation in what one media organization called a “shocking reversal.” Roach was greeted with gratitude because she listened to her constituents, understood their opposition, and made the right vote.
This experience is further evidence of the power workers have when they unite, organize, and fight for what they believe in. Council 2 will always stand with its members, because, by working together in unison, this team makes progress in contracts, in workplaces, and in the community.