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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ex-workers say Pierce County AIDS Foundation fired them for speaking out about problems

By Becca Most News Tribune</p><p>(Tacoma, Wash.)

Four employees say they were fired from the Pierce County AIDS Foundation this week, two months after speaking out about mismanagement at the nonprofit.

The news comes less than a week after the News Tribune reported the Pierce County AIDS Foundation was having issues receiving funding for a variety of services it offers to people living with HIV/AIDS in the South Sound, putting a strain on client services. About 45 people work in the agency’s Tacoma and Olympia offices.

Employees described a toxic workplace environment where complaints of financial mismanagement and harassment to supervisors and the PCAF board of directors went unheard. The four employees let go Tuesday night or Wednesday morning – two of whom have worked for PCAF for nearly a decade – said they were not told why they were fired or what will happen next.

The employees told the News Tribune they believed they were fired in retaliation for speaking out against poor working conditions and demanding change.

PCAF CEO Ace Robinson told the News Tribune on Thursday that, per the agency’s policy, he is not able to speak about specifics on human service-related employee issues. He said, “There was an unfortunate reaction to one person being let go” on Wednesday. Robinson has been CEO of PCAF since July 2022, according to his LinkedIn profile.

A letter signed by seven staff, some of whom were fired, was sent to the board of directors on June 15. In the letter, which was obtained by the News Tribune, employees cited hiring practices that were inconsistent with the PCAF staff handbook as well as other internal communication and management issues. They included job positions not being posted or announced internally, supervisors not responding to emails or doing so inconsistently, fiscal irresponsibility, inconsistent American Disabilities Act accommodations and “substandard and unacceptable work performance” from superiors.

The letter also alleged several staff members previously were wrongfully terminated, which increased anxiety around job security at PCAF and contributed to burnout, reducing capacity to meet client needs. Concerns about bias against nonbinary staff were also brought up, as were concerns about executing PCAF’s strategic plan with client input, among other issues.

A representative from the board of directors did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the News Tribune by deadline.

Robinson said he was aware there had been communication between the PCAF board of directors and some employees, but did not know what was said or who signed the letter. Robinson also said he was unaware of management issues brought to the board and said the allegation of bias “hits me to the core.”

“I’ve never worked at a place so gender diverse,” he said. “I believe it’s one of our greatest strengths.”

PCAF offers a variety of case management, mental health, substance abuse and outreach services, as well as food bank, housing assistance, medical transportation and emergency financial assistance services to people living with HIV and AIDS. It serves about 3,000 clients in Tacoma and Olympia, Robinson told the News Tribune last week.

Robinson said Thursday that PCAF’s strong leadership team is working to ensure PCAF’s continuity of care for its clients.

PCAF is open and operating, Robinson said, and since the News Tribune article highlighted PCAF’s struggles to get reimbursed for care from the Washington Department of Health, he said the DOH has made reimbursing PCAF “a high priority.”

Robinson said PCAF sent out all checks for July services Thursday and is working on paying August services this week.

“No matter what’s happening … client care is core to the employees at PCAF,” he said.

4 employees terminated in 24 hours

Around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Robinson sent medical case manager supervisor Megan Nolan an email saying Nolan was terminated and is not eligible for rehire. A reason for termination was not cited, and Robinson said efforts to ship any office belongings to Nolan’s residence would be arranged, according to the email forwarded to the News Tribune.

Since the June letter to the board, Nolan said, PCAF had been taking away work duties “without reason or recall” despite working at PCAF for nine years. Among the work changes included handing off supervision duties of programs Nolan had overseen for years to people who were not qualified, and reducing Nolan’s involvement in budget-related issues, Nolan said.

“I sent a formal report to my HR department stating I believed I was being retaliated against,” said Nolan, who signed the letter. “No one contacted me and then three weeks later, I received an email that had a termination letter and was told that I was not to come back to the office.”

Alex Barnes, a medical case manager who specialized in helping incarcerated clients with HIV/AIDs, said he went to the PCAF office early Wednesday to gather Nolan’s belongings. Barnes would have worked at PCAF for 10 years this October but said he was terminated without explanation Wednesday morning. Barnes said he has never been fired before and has received no guidance about what would happen to his clients, some of whom are facing eviction. Barnes signed the June letter sent to the board.

Megan McNett-Firestone, a PCAF harm reduction specialist, said she was helping Barnes clear his desk when her email access was revoked Wednesday morning. McNett-Firestone said she asked her supervisor if she was being fired, too, but was ignored. Shortly after, McNett-Firestone said, she was terminated and asked to leave the premises. McNett-Firestone also signed the June letter sent to the Board.

Samuel Silvestro, a medical case manager and walk-in specialist who uses they/them pronouns, said they were also fired without an explanation Wednesday morning when they came into the office to see what was going on. Silvestro said they worked at PCAF for six weeks and was an intern prior when they were completing their master’s degree in social work. Silvestro did not work at PCAF at the time the letter was sent to the board, but said, “I’ve been vocal since I got hired that I walked into a toxic workplace that seemed to have a lot of issues that I was really disheartened about.”

The three were escorted out of the building by police Wednesday morning.

“I believe it was retaliation because we did a whistle blow to our board of directors and made a complaint that was well within our rights, according to the PCAF handbook, about the mismanagement, abuse and bullying behavior,” Barnes said.

Barnes said there were about 64 clients on his caseload. McNett-Firestone had between 55 and 60 clients on her caseload (double what is typically recommended for caseworkers, she said) and Silvestro would see about 20 clients typically, although they said they also helped other caseworkers and walk-in clients.

Standing on the sidewalk outside PCAF on Wednesday, Barnes expressed worry for his clients and how turnover would impact PCAF’s ability to build trust in the community.

“A frequent part of my job is I have folks that have pretty severe mental health issues, including suicidality. Part of a good safety plan, when you don’t have a lot of options, is to make sure you’re checking with that person very regularly. So I’ve been doing, based on their assessment at the time, either bi-weekly or weekly check-ins to make sure that they’re safe,” Barnes said. “(PCAF) did not discuss my clients, did not give me an opportunity to say anything or to talk about a plan to transfer so those services can continue.”

Barnes said many of his clients come to him for help navigating insurance claims, finding housing and food, and help with mental health and substance abuse issues, among others.

“It’s taken literal years to build the trust with them to get them into services, to get them into HIV care. And while there’s many qualified folks who would be able to support folks, building that trust and rapport is so essential to our job,” he said. “If we’re not building trust with our communities, we are not serving anyone appropriately.”