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‘Turmoil’: Unions say they have ‘no confidence’ in Tri-Cities public health leader

Nov. 17, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 18, 2022 at 9:55 p.m.

By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

KENNEWICK – Staff at the Benton Franklin Health District have no confidence in the leadership of Jason Zaccaria, administrator of the health district, said officials from unions representing public health workers at a district board meeting this week.

Zaccaria has a history of sudden terminations, absence during the COVID-19 pandemic and favoritism towards employees, said Suzie Saunders, representative for PROTEC17, a union representing public health workers, reading from a letter submitted to the health board.

The Washington state Nurses Association fully supports the PROTEC17 letter, said union representative Laurie Robinson at the meeting.

Zaccaria said there were many inaccuracies in the letter when contacted by the Tri-City Herald after the meeting. He is currently on medical leave.

The letter appeared to be prompted by what PROTEC17 said was the recent termination of Rick Dawson, a senior manager and operations director, who had been employed at the Tri-Cities based health district for 38 years.

PROTEC17 said Zaccaria had a history of sudden terminations with little justification given to senior staff who told Zaccaria they disagreed with his policies and decision.

They included two operations directors in 2012 and one in 2016.

“This continued cycle of losing key agency leaders every 4-5 years is nothing but detrimental to the agency,” the PROTEC17 letter said. “Staff are left unstable and in fear to work at an agency where voicing one’s professional opinion appears to lead to termination or retribution from the administrator.”

Change at health district

Zaccaria said reasons for terminations varied, but there were reasons behind the separations and that there was a plan for continuity of operations when Dawson left.

The district’s policy is to start with internal advising and working with employees not meeting position requirements or expectations of their manager, he said. Leadership also talks to the district’s attorney and follows his recommendations regarding terminations.

“Change is happening coming out of the pandemic,” not just at the health district but at many agencies, and the community will benefit from the changes, Zaccaria said.

The health board is working to add non-elected officials to the board, which now is composed only of Benton and Franklin county commissioners, under a change in Washington state law.

It has received $1.4 million in new Washington state funding this year to bring its budget close to $14 million and is adding 13 new positions, he said. At the same time it has made multiple internal promotions, with several of them announced at the Wednesday board meeting.

Work has been completed on a new Community Health Needs Assessment that outlines pressing public health needs in Benton and Franklin counties and the next step is completing and following a plan of improvement.

Zaccaria said he is thankful for the district’s staff, mid-level managers and senior manager team, and for their passion for their work and their dedication to their jobs.

With a staff re-alignment that began about five years ago amid funding uncertainty for public health, plus plans being made with increased funding and an updated study on community health needs, the health district has “a very bright year ahead of us,” he said.

Nursing union concerns

But among the concerns of the nursing union was that none of the 13 new positions are for nurses.

It already is difficult to retain or recruit nurses with salaries that are far below market rate, Robinson said.

She also said the health district is top heavy with supervisor positions with no public health education or background as a requirement.

The PROTEC17 letter said that Zaccaria has shown favoritism to an employee, promoting them to one of the highest-paid positions in the agency, “despite widespread backlash from both unionized and non-represented staff.”

Health district promotion

The complaint apparently refers to the promotion of an employee to assistant administrator.

The letter said that staff who have discussed concerns about favoritism have been told by Zaccaria that he has an open-door policy and welcomes input from staff.

But Dawson appeared to be abruptly fired for providing input “and the talk of an open-door policy is just talk,” the letter said.

“Mr. Dawson’s termination has thrown staff into turmoil and distress, and has caused them to lose all trust in Mr. Zaccaria’s ability to make clear and objective decisions in the best interest of the district and the community,” the letter said.

Zaccaria said the assistant administrator position had a dozen internal applications, but several backed out before the process was completed. Requirements included a written exam and applicants were interviewed with a standardized questionnaire by a committee, he said.

The district leadership’s intention is to consider current staff and look at their experience and demonstrated leadership ability for new and open management positions, he said.

The assistant administrator is not paid more than other senior staff, he said.

Allegations of absence

The PROTEC17 letter also accused Zaccaria of being absent during the pandemic, with the staff mentally and physically absent.

It was that he was the incident commander for the district’s emergency operation. But Zaccaria said he never had that role.

Two senior managers were appointed joint incident commanders, shifting responsibility between them every week or so because of the heavy demands of the work during the pandemic, he said.

Zaccaria’s job is to make sure the health district ran smoothly that it had appropriate staff for services provided, including for the extra work needed during the pandemic, he said.

He started weekly meetings with about 70 local decision makers, including representatives of the counties, the school districts, large employers like the Hanford site and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, emergency management, hospital administrators, nursing home managers and legislators, plus health district staff.

The meetings helped with strategizing and coordinating efforts, he said.

He also was instrumental in a weekly municipal advisory committee to provide information and answer questions about masks and other changing requirements. Counties, cities, state health officials and the emergency incident commanders.

In addition he provide a weekly email summary with data to many of those who attended those meetings and others.

He coordinated with Benton and Franklin county emergency management and worked on approval for public testing sites, he said.

He also talked with staff throughout the health district offices as much as he was able, he said.

Benton and Franklin county commissioners did not comment at the Wednesday meeting about the information provided by union representatives.

However, Benton Commissioner Jerome Delvin told the Tri-City Herald after the district board meeting, “I have confidence in the leadership abilities of Jason to lead the health district now and into the future as the district transitions to new board governance due to the actions of the state Legislature.”

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