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More than 100 custodians at Harborview Medical Center — mostly immigrants for whom English is not their first language — say they were denied a $1-an-hour pay bump after they failed a proficiency test that, among other things, required them to describe their jobs in English.

Their concerns are laid bare in a letter Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant sent to the heads of Harborview and of UW Medicine, which oversees the King County-owned hospital.

The letter also was copied to members of the Metropolitan King County Council and the county executive’s office.

The Harborview workers are represented by the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) and were required to pass all parts of a job-aptitude test to qualify for the raise — something to which their union agreed in principle.

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A hospital spokeswoman said the testing is meant to ensure a safe environment for all patients and that workers fully understand their jobs.

The test was administered at the start of the year to about 190 Harborview custodians, called environmental-services employees, responsible for cleaning patient areas throughout Harborview.

Their 200 counterparts at UW Medicine who perform the same duties were also given the same test.

It assessed generally how well they understood their jobs, and it required them to read a description of their duties in English and then describe what those duties meant, also in English.

Most of 130 workers at Harborview who failed the test — including supervisors — failed that specific part, their union said. Union officials said while they agreed the hospital would test the workers’ basic English proficiency, they didn’t anticipate that approach.

Many of the workers have been custodians at Harborview for more than 10 years, Sawant wrote, “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.”

Custodians at UW Medicine — who represent the same demographics as those at Harborview — took the same test and eventually all of them passed it. In her letter, Sawant said they passed because those workers were given support, including time to prepare for the test.

The union said those workers also were given training materials tailored to the test and were required to read only a few lines about their job duties from a manual and explain what it meant in English.

In contrast, Sawant noted, workers at Harborview were pulled aside to take the test, without notice. Additionally, she said, many of the workers told her staff and union officials that they have been mocked for their accents and were told that if they couldn’t pass the test, they would be reassigned — and could eventually be laid off.

The WFSE has filed a grievance with the hospital and is trying to reach a compromise.

At the start of the year, the hospital and the union negotiated what UW Medicine spokeswoman Tina Mankowski called an “infection control” premium of $1 on top of the workers’ base salary.

To get the pay raise, workers had to pass a test that examined their knowledge in a number of areas, including handling and cleaning biomedical patient-care equipment, performing appropriate hand hygiene and demonstrating skills in cleaning isolation rooms. They were also tested on their English skills through their ability to understand overhead code alerts and elements of their job description.

“Patient safety is paramount to everything we do,” Mankowski said.

She said all of the workers have an opportunity to retake any portion of the test they fail — a process that is now part of ongoing labor discussions with the hospital.

“The claim about a hostile work environment is very troubling to us,” she said. “If they feel that way, we encourage them to reach out to their human-resources representative and their union representative.”

The labor dispute originated with a proposal by the union to create a new job classification for hospital custodians, whose duties are different from those of custodians who clean office buildings.

To that end, the hospital wanted the workers to demonstrate skills in certain infection-control standards. The sides agreed to areas on which the workers would be tested and, in principle, agreed they would be asked to demonstrate basic English proficiency, said James Dannen, union council representative.

“When they announced the first round of results in January, almost everyone at the UW had passed and most of those at Harborview had failed,” he said.

Considering the medical and other technical terms, describing these jobs in English can be difficult for even native English speakers and can be even more difficult for someone for whom English is not a first language, Dannen said.

“Most people, once they have a job, don’t look at their job descriptions,” he said. “You don’t need that level of literacy to do that job.”

A coalition of refugee and immigrant groups, most of them East African, also issued a statement, calling on UW Medicine to address what they called “unfair targeting” of immigrants and refugees.

Any test, they said, must address the cultural and educational background of the employees, in this case, many immigrants and refugees.

Sawant’s office is investigating whether and how city ordinances might be applied to workers at Harborview.

In the meantime, she is asking that Harborview provide workers the same support given to the UW Medicine workers, along with their $1 premium, retroactive to Jan. 1.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or On Twitter @turnbullL.

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