Mustafa Getahun and other Washington Federation of State Employees laundry workers picket University of Washington Medicine at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery on May 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Washington Federation of State Employees

Mustafa Getahun and other Washington Federation of State Employees laundry workers picket University of Washington Medicine at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery on May 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Washington Federation of State Employees

University of Washington Laundry Workers Feel Hung Out to Dry

The Rainier Valley facility’s imminent closure leaves over 100 people looking for new jobs.

Mustafa Getahun has worked as a truck driver at the University of Washington’s Rainier Valley laundry facility since shortly after arriving to the U.S. as a refugee from Ethiopia in the 1980s. For more than 20 years he’s done the largely invisible job of picking up soiled linens from University of Washington facilities, dropping off the laundry to be cleaned at the Rainier Valley center, then delivering the fresh sheets and uniforms to the university’s patients and employees. It’s helped him raise three kids, and put two of them through college—one of whom received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington.

The university system has served as his family’s second home. But in March, he and more than 100 other laundry workers will lose their life’s work without receiving a payout when the facility closes. Citing the facility as a financial burden, University of Washington Medicine will instead outsource its laundry services to Auburn-based Hospital Central Services Association.

It’s come as a shock to Getahun, 58, who said he is frustrated to have to brush off his resume to find another job at his age. “We work hard and without our fault we lose our jobs,” Getahun said. “It’s a really sad story.”

The University of Washington’s Nov. 2 announcement that it would close Consolidated Laundry was met with little public outrage. But to the laundry workers unionized under the Washington Federation of State Employees, 89 percent of whom are immigrants, the news came as a major blow to their yearlong efforts to keep the facility open. The laundry workers held protests throughout the spring, testified at a Feb. 26 King County Council meeting, and met with Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff in Olympia to discuss keeping the facility open.

More than 40 members of the Washington State Legislature even sent a letter to UW President Ana Mari Cauce and UW Medicine CEO Paul Ramsey, imploring the university not to make a decision on the facility’s fate before lawmakers had an opportunity to find solutions during the next legislative session. “We are convinced that the UW Consolidated Laundry is a vital public asset, both for the State of Washington, as well as UW Medicine,” legislators wrote in the Aug. 31 letter. “We are deeply concerned at the prospect of UW Medicine moving forward with the closure of its laundry without first working in good faith with the Legislature.”

Laundry workers meet with Governor Jay Inslee’s staffer Paulette Avalos on September 17. 
Photo courtesy of the Washington Federation of State Employees

Laundry workers meet with Governor Jay Inslee’s staffer Paulette Avalos on September 17. Photo courtesy of the Washington Federation of State Employees

The union also commissioned laundry-linen management consultant Tom Mara to provide an analysis on UW Medicine’s future laundry-linen services in a report that was released in late October. Mara looked at three scenarios: continuing to operate the UW Laundry at its current facility by making investments such as replacing equipment and upgrading the facility; developing new laundry services on the same land as Consolidated Laundry or elsewhere in Seattle; or closing UW Medicine’s laundry facility to outsource services. In the first scenario, Mara concluded that building renovation and equipment replacement would cost $5 million, while UW Medicine’s estimated that it would amount to $15.1 million. The report concluded that UW Medicine would save more money by investing in the laundry facilities instead of outsourcing.

UW Medicine spokesperson Tina Mankowski wrote in a statement emailed to Seattle Weekly that the university officials did take Mara’s and others’ suggestions into consideration when making their final decision. But ultimately they found the facility to be too much of a drain on the university system, she said. “The motivation for this decision was financial. UW Medicine, which provides a large portion of the state’s under- and un-compensated care, is currently experiencing significant financial challenges. Contracting with HCSA saves an estimated $3 million in operating expenses annually and avoids significant capital investments currently necessary to keep our existing facility operational. These savings will help UW Medicine continue to provide high-quality health care services to all regardless of ability to pay,” Mankowski wrote. “Our laundry workers are extremely loyal and hardworking and this decision is in no way a reflection of the incredible work they do every day to support our hospitals and patients. Our number-one priority over the next several months is their dignity and well-being, including helping them find new positions either at the UW, in our hospitals, with HCSA or elsewhere in the community. We will commit significant resources to this effort and are confident that any interested worker will have an opportunity either to continue to work at the UW or with HCSA.” She said the university is not able to share the HCSA contract details, as they are still negotiating.

Rod Palmquist, higher education coordinator for the Washington Federation of State Employees, takes issue with the way that UW Medicine has treated the laundry workers. “President Cauce focuses a lot on issues of equity, but her actions in closing the laundry are disproportionately destroying the lowest-paid UW Medicine workers, who are mostly workers of color and immigrants,” Palmquist said. “Instead of engaging with us on ways to keep the laundry open, which would benefit the university, she took this action that is devastating to the most marginalized workers at UW.”

In Palmquist’s eyes, news of the facility’s closure touches on a broader tension between the Washington Federation of State Employees and the university. WFSE, which represents 3,300 mostly lower-wage UW employees, is the only classified staff union that rejected the university’s last and final offer. “We’re in a wider dispute with the university, and we’re preparing for possible strike activities,” Palmquist said.

Getahun believes that much of the university’s financial woes could have been solved had the laundry facility been properly maintained throughout the years. In the meantime, Getahun and others are left to find other jobs within the next few months. He hopes that he can be a driver elsewhere, but the university has not offered him any other work opportunities aside from being a janitor, which he says is too physically demanding for him. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “That’s scary.”

mhellmann@seattleweekly.com

More in News & Comment

A woman works on a drawing next to an unused viewing scope as a smoky haze obscures the Space Needle and downtown Seattle last August as smoke from wildfires moved across the region. (Photo courtesy of The Herald/Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
Why Do Washington Voters Struggle With Climate Change Policies?

Despite environmental awareness and the public’s apparent desire for reform, statewide initiatives keep failing

Mary Lynn Pannen, founder and CEO of Sound Options, has consulted thousands of Washington families on geriatric care for 30 years. Photo courtesy of Sound Options
Seattle Takes on Elder Abuse as Reported Cases Rise

Local agencies and geriatric care managers aim to increase public awareness about the epidemic.

The Ride2 transit app will offer on-demand rides to and from West Seattle starting on Dec. 17. Courtesy of King County Metro
Climate Action Coalition Urges City to Respond to Seattle Squeeze

MASS asks the city to prioritize reducing traffic and increasing pedestrian safety ahead of the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s closure.

State Supreme Court Strikes Down I-27; King County Will Pursue Safe Consumption Sites

The decision upholds a court ruling keeping the anti-consumption site initiative off the ballot.

Seattle’s Hockey Team And Stadium Are On Their Way

Key Arena renovations will be completed without the use of public funding

Andrea Bernard, Allycea Weil, and Phoenix Johnson (left to right) are Licton Springs K-8 parents who want their kids to stay in the Native-centered program. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Licton Springs K-8 Parents Dismayed by Potential School Move

The PTO says children have benefited from the Native-centered program, and that transferring the pupils would disrupt their progress.

Seattle Municipal Court’s warrant outreach event on Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Seattle Takes Steps to Quash Warrants

City Attorney attempts to address inequities in criminal justice system and enhance public safety.

The King County Courthouse. File photo
King County Council Acknowledges Report on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

Report also says youth of color face a disproportionate amount of disciplinary measures

Federal Way Megachurch Slapped With Another Sexual Exploitation Lawsuit

Lawsuit calls for removal of Casey and Wendy Treat, and CFO, from church leadership roles.

The Centralia Power Plant is a coal-burning plant owned by TransAlta which supplies 380 megawatts to Puget Sound Energy. It is located in Lewis County and slated to shut down by 2025. Aaron Kunkler/Staff Photo
National Report Outlines Climate Change’s Course For Northwest

More fires, floods and drought appear to be on their way for Washington state.

Mustafa Getahun and other Washington Federation of State Employees laundry workers picket University of Washington Medicine at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery on May 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Washington Federation of State Employees
University of Washington Laundry Workers Feel Hung Out to Dry

The Rainier Valley facility’s imminent closure leaves over 100 people looking for new jobs.