May 23, 2018

On the Job: Orlando Valenzuela, Public Health Administrator

Valenzuela is a member of AFSCME Local 505 at the City of Chicago

Tell us about your career in public service.

I’ve worked for the city of Chicago for more than 20 years. I’m happy to be here. I see myself as employed by the people of Chicago and that’s who I want to do my best for, because I appreciate the opportunity to do this work.

I’ve had several jobs with the city. I started as an investigator for communicable diseases. I worked on tracking syphilis infections, finding and notifying partners to stop the spread of the disease. That’s how we have been able to reduce infections in the city. It’s very important work.

I’ve been in my current position as a public health administrator for 15 years. I provide technical assistance to agencies receiving funding from the city. I help them train their staff and solve problems they face in their work.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I like the interaction with the community. When people think of the health department they think of this faraway agency, but when they work with us they see the face of it. The people of Chicago pay our salaries, so I try to provide them with the best service possible. I also love volunteering in emergency situations.

What kind of volunteer work have you done?

I’ve volunteered during many emergencies, like during the Ebola crisis, a meningitis outbreak and the H1N1 flu epidemic. Most recently I helped Puerto Ricans displaced after the hurricane.

The city created what we call the MARC—the multi-agency resource center—where different government and non-governmental organizations coordinate services for the evacuees from Puerto Rico.

We saw a lot of union members working really hard to provide services and we worked together across agencies—local, state, federal—and with community-based organizations. The health department helped with medications, post-surgery care, continuing ongoing treatments and addressing mental health issues.

How did it feel to help people in crisis?

What impressed me the most was the solidarity, how people here happily opened their homes. Many people were staying with relatives and friends who had really big hearts but small apartments; it was hard to have a family of five in their living room.

Everyone who came from Puerto Rico was thankful and appreciated everything we did for them, but you could see that the federal government failed them. They didn’t feel like they were treated like the Americans they are. Part of what we did was to show them that you are welcome here. You are welcome in Chicago. You are not a stranger, you are not a foreigner. This is your home.

How has the union impacted your life?

The union provides peace of mind because everything is fair with a union. There are clear rules and everyone agrees to them. If you don’t do your job, there is a process to discipline you. And if a manager is wrong, there is a process to protect you. I applied to a position and I didn’t get it because someone had more seniority than me. But I’ve gotten some opportunities because I had more seniority. When they shut down the training unit I worked in, I was placed in another position. Without a union I would have lost my job.

I come from a long line of proud union members—my grandfather, father, brother, sister—and it’s amazing how a union changes your life. I have three kids. Two are in college and one is living on his own with his own family. One of them is going to college using the AFSCME Free College benefit to get his degree. He’s been working on it for two years and will graduate soon. That’s been a lifesaver for me. Without the union that wouldn’t be possible. That’s the union working for me.  

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