Letter Urging Harborview to End Racial Harrassment

The following letter was sent on Wednesday, February 26, 2014.

Dr. Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine & Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs
Department of Medicine, University of Washington
Health Sciences Center, C-314
Box 356350
1959 NE Pacific Street
Seattle, WA  98195

Ms. Johnese Spisso, Interim Harborview Director & Vice President for Medical Affairs
UW Medicine, University of Washington
Health Sciences Building, C-301
Box 356340
1959 NE Pacific Street
Seattle, WA  98195


Dear Dr. Ramsey & Ms. Spisso:

It has been brought to my attention that UW Medicine custodians at Harborview Medical Center have been subjected to a pattern of racial harassment and discrimination by their managers. I am writing to request that UW Medicine immediately rectify this situation at Harborview and ensure that these workers do not feel intimidated because of their race or language abilities.

My office recently met with 40 UW Medicine custodians employed at Harborview, who informed us that:

  • Over 100 custodians at Harborview were denied the $1 “premium pay” after taking a job proficiency test that included reading their job description aloud in English and then answering questions about it in English. The workers who failed (a passing grade is 100%) were immigrants, while native English speakers passed. However, at UW Medical Center, where the same type of UW Medicine custodians were eligible for an identical raise and given the same English proficiency test under less hostile conditions, workers report that only 3 custodians failed, and now all have passed. The custodians at the UW Medical Center campus passed because they were provided support for the test, in the form of preparation time, and a supportive environment. In contrast, the workers at Harborview have often been pulled aside from their work shifts and told to take the test without notice.
  • The UW Medicine director of the Harborview custodial department has created an intimidating environment by repeatedly laughing at the accents of the immigrant workers he supervises and recently hiring multiple extra supervisors to watch the custodians clean. Workers thus see the results of the English proficiency test as a part of this general trend.
  • The director told the workers that if they did not pass the language proficiency test, they will be moved to different areas of the hospital or laid off.

Many of these workers have been working as UW Medicine custodians at Harborview for over 10 years, yet they are now inexplicably being told that they do not know how to do their job because English is not the first of the many languages they speak. These hard-working members of the Seattle community deserve to work in an environment that is free of this type of harassment and intimidation. Toward this end, I request the following:

  • That UW Medicine custodians at Harborview immediately be given their $1 an hour raise, retroactive to January 1st. It would be shameful, and against the interests of all Seattle workers and all members of the Seattle community, if the University of Washington effectively established a wage system in which immigrant workers at Harborview are paid less than their UW Medicine co-workers for doing the same job.
  • That if UW Medicine requires custodians take a proficiency test, the custodians at Harborview be provided with supportive conditions for the test-taking so that they are able to succeed, as opposed to being set up for failure.
  • That UW Medicine immediately take steps to ensure an atmosphere for its Harborview custodians that is free of racial harassment.

Harborview Medical Center, though operated by the University, is a public, county-owned hospital. My staff are investigating how Seattle City Ordinances can be applied to Seattle workers at Harborview, as well as how Seattle’s laws can complement the King County Code. I will be bringing this issue to the attention of my colleagues on the King County Council and the larger public as necessary. I promise to do everything in my power as a City Councilmember to make sure that no Seattle worker experiences discrimination on the basis of race or language proficiency. If UW Medicine custodians at Harborview have to resort to public actions to win justice, I pledge to march at their side.


Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant


Cc:       Rod Dembowski, King County Councilmember District 1

Larry Gossett, King County Councilmember District 2

Kathy Lambert, King County Councilmember District 3

Larry Phillips, King County Councilmember District 4

Dave Upthegrove, King County Councilmember District 5

Jane Hague, King County Councilmember District 6

Pete von Reichbauer, King County Councilmember District 7

Joe McDermott, King County Councilmember District 8

Reagan Dunn, King County Councilmember District 9

King County Executive Dow Constantine

King County Deputy Executive Fred Jarrett

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