Workers who clean linens and scrubs for University of Washington Medicine hospitals and clinics are worried they could be left unemployed by plans to privatize their jobs.
“We’re like family at this laundry,” said Patricia Thomas, who has worked at the laundry for 27 years. Thomas described coworkers with children and health problems. “What are we going to do if they lay us off and we don’t have any medical [benefits] or anything?”
As UW Medicine faces budget challenges, the university is considering hiring an outside firm to replace the existing UW-run laundry. Thomas and other workers rallied on campus Wednesday begging the school to reconsider.
“My dream is gone,” said Sewalem Gebre, who has worked at the laundry for 12 years and supports three children. “UW—they don’t care about people, they care about money.”
About 100 workers and students gathered before marching to UW President Ana Mari Cauce’s office to deliver a petition calling on the university to reconsider its plans for the laundry.
Controversy over laundry has been ramping up since the start of the year. Today, the laundry employees work in a facility near the Mount Baker light rail station, where many begin their shifts at 5 am. UW Medicine runs the laundry. The employees work for the university and belong to the Washington Federation of State Employees and Service Employees International Union 925. Most are immigrants and people of color, according to workers. They make between $15 and $18 an hour. (Several workers make $21 or $27, according to university pay data compiled by the union.)
Union representatives, workers, and advocates say privatizing the laundry could result in lower-paying jobs with worse benefits and no union representation. Plus, the roughly 100 people who work at the laundry now could be out of work.
“Every day we hear about the homeless. The university sits in their nice buildings, making their nice salaries, and they are ready to put these people on the street,” said John Frazier, a Harborview employee who attended the rally.
UW argues the laundry no longer makes financial sense. In 2017, UW Medicine had a $75 million operating loss, according to the university. In a statement, a spokesperson for UW Medicine said the 30-year-old laundry facility is “no longer state-of-the-art and would require significant capital costs to bring it up to current standards.” The union argues the laundry's $5 million budget is only a small fraction of UW Medicine's costs.
In February, several laundry workers testified at a King County Council meeting about their fears of losing their jobs. Seven county council members and County Executive Dow Constantine also sent a letter to Cauce calling the potential loss of jobs a “serious concern.”
“While we appreciate the difficult challenge of responsibly managing costs across a large organization," they wrote, "we have misgivings over comparisons between a unionized workforce and private sector vendors who may compete on the basis of paying workers lower wages, substandard or no benefits, avoiding union representation, or by making other tradeoffs inconsistent with our joint values."
The county and university have an agreement that governs Harborview, which the county owns and the university manages. That agreement requires the university maintain “collaborative working relationships” with unions representing workers. Constantine and the council members wrote that the move to privatize the laundry may be “inconsistent with that agreement.”
In a response letter, Cauce told the council members that workers' "dignity and well-being will be our top priority throughout this process regardless of the outcome."
“The operating and capital improvement costs necessary to sustain the laundry operation have become prohibitively expensive," Cauce wrote.
At Wednesday's rally, a staff member from Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant read from a letter in which Sawant called the university’s plans “reckless” and “an insult toward you...and to our entire community of working people.”
The workers have also gotten support from some student groups at the UW. Alyssa James, part of the UW chapter of Students Against Sweatshops, said at the rally, “I pay a lot of money to go to this university and I expect to see the money that I pay to be invested in my education and in the community itself... Why is the University of Washington’s administration comfortable with ruining the lives of working class immigrants, women, and people of color for the sake of balancing a budget without taking a hit to their own salaries?”
In order to privatize its laundry services, state law requires the university to give workers 90 days notice. Workers then have the chance to offer an alternative way to replace the service. The university plans to take bids from private companies through a request for proposals on May 16.