Hundreds of food-service workers at the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) are demanding more protection from the novel coronavirus, as they continue to staff the hospital’s cafeteria through the crisis.
More than 300 hospital and UW employees signed a petition, delivered Tuesday to hospital management, demanding the cafeteria be shut down for a “deep clean,” workers be given protective masks and gloves and temporary protective shields be erected around cashiers. Grocery stores around the region have put in similar barriers at check-outs.
At least three workers at UWMC’s Plaza Cafe have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), the union representing the cafeteria workers.
The first of those employees worked for five days after displaying symptoms but before testing positive in late March, WFSE said.
Luis Rios, a cook at the cafeteria who’s worked at UW for 17 years, said employees got an email saying a co-worker had tested positive, but they weren’t given any further information. Through talking to co-workers, he eventually realized that he’d been in contact several times with the person who tested positive. They had been no more than a couple feet apart in the locker room, Rios said.
Rios, 49, took it upon himself to get tested and, on March 29, found out he had tested positive. He left a message for his supervisors telling them he wouldn’t be coming into work, but he said he hasn’t heard a word back.
“No call, no email, no nothing,” Rios said, through an interpreter. He’s been quarantining at his Mountlake Terrace home, which he shares with his mother and brother.
“The cafeteria needs to be cleaned and disinfected. You have outside people coming in who aren’t being tested or may have symptoms,” he said. “Everybody’s lives are on the line.”
Justin Lee, a WFSE spokesman, said it’s an employer’s responsibility to tell workers when they may have been exposed, so they can self-quarantine. He said that they’ve seen some improvements from the hospital since the petition began circulating, but not enough.
“They continue to neglect to properly inform employees of potential exposure, and this has obviously led to additional infections,” Lee said. “We do not have a clear commitment from them to inform workers when they have potentially been exposed.”
In an email to the union, UWMC leadership wrote that there was “no way to know for sure” if the three employees who tested positive acquired the virus through work or not.
Tina Mankowski, a UW Medicine spokeswoman, said they were surprised to get the petition because they already had addressed most of the issues it raised. The only thing they haven’t done, Mankowski said, is close down the cafeteria for a deep cleaning. But, she said, the cafeteria is going through deep cleaning in zones, at night, so it can stay open during the day.
Mankowski said they’ve provided information about the virus in 11 different languages and workers, as they begin their shifts, are now asked to attest that they don’t have any symptoms.
“Our kitchen not only serves employees and visitors but prepares meals for our patients, making a total closure unfeasible,” Mankowski said. “If unfortunately, an employee tests positive for COVID-19, we routinely inform co-workers so that they can monitor themselves for any symptoms. We provide easy access for testing to all employees who are symptomatic.”
The petition, to UWMC CEO Paul Ramsey and UW President Ana Marie Cauce, also demands that employees who were in contact with co-workers who tested positive be tested for the virus. It asks that all employees be given education and training on COVID-19 by a medical professional, with translators available.
“We, the workers of Plaza Café Food and Nutrition Services Dept., also other employees, and customers that frequent the Cafeteria, demand that the management comply with the Washington State Department of Health and CDC regulations for the safety of our workers, customers, and our families,” said Maria Jesusa Keberenge, a food-service worker in the cafeteria, delivering the petition. “We expect a hospital to follow the regulations. You should have shut down when you found out about the first positive case.”
Dr. George Plummer, a first-year resident at UWMC, said the cafeteria workers are vital to the hospital’s operation and his union, the University of Washington Housestaff Association, stands in solidarity with them.
“Both patients and staff rely on the hard work of food service and facilities employees,” Plummer said. “All workers — whether they are taking care of patients by feeding them, cleaning their rooms or providing medical care — deserve fair treatment, equal protection and adequate compensation.”