One of the “graduates” choked up with emotion, only able to say “Thank you very much.” Another joked that now he talks too much. The emotional scene was an unusual “graduation ceremony” at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara, where 10 of the hospital”s Environmental Services workers got certificates marking their completion of an innovative and rigorous English-As-A-Second-Language program at the medical center.
It is the first such class in Kaiser Permanente”s Northern California Region, according to William McKenzie, Director of the Environmental Service Department at Santa Clara”s hospital and a former Junior High School English teacher. He is the sparkplug that ignited the class.
“We felt it was the right thing to do for our workers,” said McKenzie. “Many had been here for a long time, and were hired before basic English skills were a requirement of the job. Often they”d have trouble communicating with Kaiser Permanente members, patients and staff.”
EVS workers are the unsung heroes of the medical center, cleaning, dusting, emptying the trash, scouring the floors and sanitizing patient rooms. But being unable to communicate effectively made a tough job more difficult, said McKenzie.
“People have been asking us for ESL classes for years,” explained Lucy Runkel, associate director of the union education fund that helped make the ESL classes happen. “But Bill McKenzie did what no one else was willing to do – he released people for the education sessions.”
The SEIU UHW-West and Joint Employer Education Fund underwrote the classes, in partnership with the Santa Clara Adult School. The workers took classes in conference rooms at the hospital during parts of their shifts, and Kaiser Permanente paid for the replacement workers needed during their “school time.”
Since the classes met inside the medical center, it was easier for the workers to attend. At 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., the “students” would be released from work to go to class. Teachers from the Santa Clara Adult School took them through 3-hour ESL courses, with a slightly modified curriculum to include simple medical and cleaning solution terms.
For example, one class session taught phrases around certain chemical compounds commonly used in sanitizing the hospital. Items were projected on a screen, and the teacher led the students through a repeat-the-word-and-write-it-down exercise.
“We”re hearing the workers are communicating more at home with their families because of the classes,” said McKenzie. He said a new session will be starting during the autumn months to provide lessons for more of the 60 EVS workers who originally signed up for the classes.
The classes also taught the EVS workers how to use computers and negotiate certain job-related company websites.
One graduate of the class said that, with her computer training, she”s “Googling” a lot more on her home computer; and that”s upsetting her children who are getting less of her attention.