Long-time health department employee cites commission as reason for resignation


Last updated 3/1/2023 at 11:50am

A meeting between Hill County Health Department employees and Hill County Commissioner Jake Strissel took place amid the backdrop of WIC Coordinator Nicole Hungerford’s resignation from the department after almost nine years, having been offered a position as a WIC coordinator for the state.

Hungerford’s resignation letter cited the department’s deteriorating relationship with the commission, and ongoing inaction on the matter of the department’s pay as the primary reasons for her resignation.

“I have enjoyed working for the WIC program and the Hill County Health Department for the last eight-and-a-half years, but I can no longer continue to work for elected leaders who refuse to recognize the importance of this work,” her resignation letter said. “The Board of Commissioners’ continued unwillingness to appropriately compensate dedicated health department staff at a level that is reflective of our required professional education and experience has left me with no options to stay.”

In an interview with the Havre Daily News last week, Hungerford said the matter of pay is a big problem but is ultimately a symptom of a larger issue, that she feels the commission doesn’t respect her department or their work.

Hungerford said Commissioner Sheri Williams, who took a seat on the commission just this year, has only been on the job for seven weeks, so she hasn’t had much of a chance to work with her yet, but for the past few years the commission as a whole has been, at best, uncaring about the work and dedication her department has shown, and that lack of support has had serious consequences.

She said the energy of the people who work at the department has been completely drained and while she is extremely passionate about public health, it’s very difficult to feel worthwhile when leadership shows no regard for their work, especially during the biggest health crisis of the century.

Hungerford said working through the pandemic, which saw the department’s workload expand dramatically, would have been difficult enough, but to see so much of the public turn against them and harass them while elected leaders give no support or are actively hostile toward them for doing their jobs to protect the community was incredibly difficult,

“It was hell,” she said.

She said the department had profanities carved into their windows, their personnel were getting screamed at by people and the commission didn’t showed them support in any substantive way, and even getting basic communication was a struggle during a frightening time.

“We feel like the redheaded stepchild over here,” she said.

The pandemic seemed to be when tension between the department and the commission began to seriously worsen, she said, with then-Commissioner Diane McLean directly disrespecting them and their work, such as belittling them for focusing on vaccnations, and the department seeing little support from the rest of the commission.

Hungerford said pay isn’t the only issue the department faces, but it is a massive problem, one that she said she’s sure will cost the county more existing employees and future applicants if it isn’t remedied.

She said the issue of pay is hardly exclusive to their department and she feels strongly that all departments deserve more, but it’s especially true for the health department given that their positions all require degrees and continuing education, which is expensive.

She said she has a bachelor’s degree and had to take extra nutrition education credits on top of training and education she needs to do every year, and to see the county advertise jobs at higher pay than she gets while requiring only a high school diploma or GED is incredibly frustrating, especially after more than eight years of service.

Hungerford said when she and other department employees press the issue, they feel ignored and disrespected, as typified by the response she received from Commissioner Jake Strissel when she sent in her resignation letter.

“Thank you for your resignation. I apologize the constraints of the County’s ability to mirror private sector employment has come to this,” the response read.

Hungerford said she found this response very disrespectful, considering the length of her service to the county, and the fact that the very first paragraph of her resignation letter makes it clear that she is going to work at the state.

She said no one is going into public health to get rich, and neither she nor her colleagues have ever expected the county to mirror the private sector in terms of pay.

When asked about his response to the letter Strissel said he misread it and apologized for the mistake, thanking Hungerford for her service to the county.

“Her years of service is a tremendous accomplishment,” he said in an email to the Havre Daily News. “Her dedication to her profession is what garnered her an opportunity to work for the state. I know she will excel in her new position. The state is lucky to have her.”

Despite all of this, Hungerford said, her decision to leave the department wasn’t any easy one, especially since her new position won’t have as much contact with the public, something she really enjoys.

“I love my colleagues, I love the clients, I’ve been working with some of those clients for the full nine years,” she said.

However, she said, the state has been asking her to work for them for quite a while, and they demonstrated they valued her work when she told them she didn’t want to move out of Hill County and they put in the time and effort to make the position possible to do remotely in response.

“They found ways to make it work,” she said. “That shows that they actually want me.”

Strissel has since responded to Hungerford’s criticisms of the commission, expressing sympathy for them regarding the issue of pay but saying that is a reality of public service.

“The bottom line is we choose our own paths in life,” he said. “If it’s money one seeks, going into public service will unfortunately never get you there.”

He also pushed back on Hungerford saying that the department’s educational requirements necessitate better pay, saying he sees the argument’s validity, but that too is a reality in other public and private sector jobs.

“There are many high-paying jobs that do not require a college degree,” he said. “Many of our road department, sheriff’s department, and (Unified Disposal Board) staff do not possess a college degree. Yet, they all require continuing education and training, and are masters of their craft. … As of the last census, only 20.39% of Hill County residents have a bachelor’s degree. (Hungerford) is isolating almost 80% of our total population, including many blue collar workers that have cut their teeth in the employment they chose.”

Strissel said he works three jobs to make ends meet and the commission has already given the county health department $100,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

That $100,000 was specifically to pay for COVID-19 prevention work that was already being done and the commission took five months to make the funds accessible despite voting in favor of providing them.

The funding was voted for in September of 2021 but in January of 2022 the department still hadn’t been given access to it — despite Berg saying it was critical to their work to combat the pandemic — because Commissioner Mark Peterson, chair of the county board of health, hadn't signed any documents authorizing the department to use the money.

Berg said in August of 2021 that her department had received no funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, despite her repeatedly asking the commission to allocate some funds to bolster her department and keep it sustainable during the pandemic.

When it came to the matter of the commission’s treatment of the department, Strissel said, he found Hungerford’s negativity surprising, saying he has always been communicative with the department.

“Whether it’s personally transporting COVID tests to people who cannot leave their homes in western Hill County at the request of health department staff or writing personal thank you cards for their service on their work anniversaries, I do my best to facilitate a positive working environment,” he said.

He also said they’re not the only ones who were verbally abused during the pandemic.

“I too was on the front lines during the height of the pandemic, assisting with drive through COVID testing events and taking temperatures in full PPE and felt the wrath of certain members of the public during that time,” he said.

When asked about Hungerford’s concerns, Commissioner Williams said she’s only been on the commission for two months and asked for the department’s patience while they come up with a plan.

“The county is seriously struggling, due to inflation in all areas of the county,” she said. “Although I've only served as commissioner for two months, I am in the process of collecting information, and reviewing employee job descriptions, and statewide county wages, as well as looking into the health department’s budget, to see if the increase they are requesting is both feasible and sustainable.”

Williams said when the department made the request for higher wages to the commission they were informed that all of the health department employees were actively looking for other employment and plan to work elsewhere if their wage increase requirements are not met soon, so the commission is taking the request seriously, but her duty is to be financially responsible with the county’s budget and the commission needs to give the request its due diligence.

As for Hungerford’s frustrations with the commission’s treatment of the department, she said she can’t speak to the last few years and she understands their frustration but she was not on the board at that time.

“I was not part of that commission, and to be fair, the pandemic was a stressful, and devastating time for everyone everywhere,” she said.

Williams encouraged everyone to feel free to speak up about the issue and ask questions of their local government, and said she can be reached at [email protected] .

Commissioner Peterson has not responded to requests for comment on this issue.


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