Clockwise from top to bottom: M Health Fairview Masonic Children's Hospital, North Memorial Health, and Children's Minnesota Hospital. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

A survey of healthcare workers at several Twin Cities hospitals found allegations of racism in the workplace. Now, months after hospital officials were shown the results, workers are upset with what they call a lack of action from their employers.

The study, “Racism in the Hospital,” surveyed 31 employees (29 identified as people of color) across several hospitals in the Twin Cities. Participants were asked several questions in an effort to investigate how they experienced racism in the workplace, and to explore the adequacy of management’s response to complaints of racism.

Gary New works as a service and product assistant at two M Health Fairview locations and participated in the study. He said he feels the need to speak up when encountering racism at work, but that not everyone feels empowered to do the same. New’s willingness to speak up came only after years of being quiet.

“I used to hold back,” New said. “I will not any longer, and I find I get better results by saying it versus holding it back.”

The study’s participants are all members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and included nursing assistants, phlebotomists, and dietary aids, among other workers. The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota conducted the study between March and April, 2022. The center describes itself as a “nationally recognized center” that works towards developing “new knowledge about public policy issues.”

The study looked at four different types of racism in the workplace: racism from co-workers, from management, from patients, and racism in the treatment of patients.

Participants in six focus groups reported “extensive and troubling” examples of racism in hospital workplaces, according to the study.

Participants spoke most often about the actions of co-workers and managers, suggesting that the problem of racism, though at times initiated by patients, is primarily a question of workplace toxicity in which employees of color are abused and alienated by the actions of other workers, both at their pay grade and above, the study concluded. 

The study found that the problems described indicate a “widespread and entrenched” issue that is worsened by management’s lack of action in response to complaints of racism.

Leaders of the following hospitals and healthcare companies were sent a copy of the study in late 2022, according to Brenda Hilbrich, SEIU healthcare vice president:

  • Allina Health Systems
  • M Health Fairview
  • North Memorial Health
  • Children’s Hospitals and Clinics
  • Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital

Three M Health Fairview facilities—Southdale Hospital, Masonic Children’s Hospital, and St. John’s Hospital—were included in the survey. Allina Health workers are part of the SEIU union so the healthcare system received a copy of the report. However, Allina Health workers were not surveyed in the study.

“We’ve extended invitations for all of our employers to sit down with members to talk about solutions. We’ve heard back from only one CEO and one hospital president, with whom we’ve had only introductory meetings,” Hilbrich said. “The others have simply ignored our requests to meet. This is unacceptable. Racism is an issue that hurts workers, patients and our whole system.”

Some hospitals represented in the study told Sahan Journal they’re committed to diversity and try to foster a culture that encourages staff to report racism and harassment. Others did not return messages seeking comment.

The Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, MN on February 15, 2023. Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Hospital workers sound off

In an interview with Sahan Journal, several study participants expressed their frustration with the responses to racism—or lack thereof—from their employers. They also shared stories about how they’ve endured racism in the workplace.

Participant and nursing assistant Carmen Campbell said she is the only African American in her unit at Children’s Minnesota Hospital and Clinics. Campbell said the biggest issue she faces is how she’s treated by coworkers, and how they speak about others.

It started with little comments about her personality or how she carried herself, Campbell said, and eventually became more about race, especially after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police in 2020, prompting demonstrators to protest for several days across the Twin Cities.

“I’ve heard people say ‘they’ and ‘them’ and, ‘These people are always this and that’,” Campbell said. “You shouldn’t be like this, because you have all these different cultures of people that come in here, and you call them ‘they’ and ‘them’.”

Rita Matthews, a phlebotomist at Allina Mercy, said she experienced racism in the way her superiors treated her with work assignments. Racism in the workplace can also affect patient care at times, she added.

“We don’t only want to advocate for ourselves—we also want to advocate for the patients of color, you know, because we see that they are treated differently,” Matthews said.

Patients of color are sometimes treated differently than their white counterparts, according to Matthews, who said workers like her have to make up the difference in care.

Matthews said she recently visited a patient in order to draw their blood, and the patient asked her if they could receive help to take a shower. Matthews informed the patient she was only there to draw blood, and told the patient to ask a nurse to assist with the shower. The patient told her they’d been asking for a shower for three days, Matthews said.

Healthcare companies’ responses

Union leaders from Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital met with hospital president, Jennifer Myster, on January 12 to discuss the report, according to a union spokesperson.

Reached for comment, Jimmy Bellamy, a senior communications consultant for Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital, directed Sahan Journal to Health Partners’ equity, inclusion, and anti-racism policy on the hospital’s website. Health Partners owns the hospital. He also said l hospital officials had met with union members about the study. However, hospital staff and union leaders described the meeting as a quick introduction where the report was briefly discussed.

“Across our organization, leaders have reviewed the report and are thinking through additional ways we can create a more inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome, included, and valued,” Bellamy said.

Sandy Young, a nursing assistant at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital, said she experiences racism at work from coworkers, and that it’s tiring because she has to educate her coworkers about race while also doing her job.

Young described a culture where racial stereotypes were commonly voiced out loud in the workplace. Young, who is Black, said coworkers sometimes questioned the paternity of her five children, how she afforded her daughter’s college education, and how she was able to pay for an expensive purse or pair of sunglasses.

This is the stigmatism that comes with me being a person of color working where I work. I work hard for everything that I own and have acquired.

Sandy young, nursing assistant at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital

“This is the stigmatism that comes with me being a person of color working where I work,” Young said. “I work hard for everything that I own and have acquired.”

Young said she corrects coworkers when she’s faced with such stereotypes and racial stigmas.

“Now I gotta take myself out of the realm of being a nursing assistant and put myself back into, ‘How do I explain this to this person for them to understand I was offended by what this person said?’” Young said. 

Several study participants also described policies currently in place at their hospitals as “performative,” and more for show than actual change.

Outside of Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital’s president, the only other hospital official that met with union representatives was Children’s Hospitals and Clinics CEO Marc Gorelick, according to union leaders. He met representatives on January 18 to discuss the report.

“We’re disheartened to read the findings and the stories described in The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs’ ‘Racism in the Hospital Report’,” Children’s Hospitals said in a statement. “No employee should experience racism and discrimination when they come to work.”

Children’s also said the hospital is committed to diversity, and has grown its executive leadership team from no people of color to 30 percent people of color in the last two years. Staff diversity increased from 19 percent to 25 percent, with a goal of reaching 34 percent by 2024, the hospital added.

The North Memorial Health Hospital in Minneapolis, MN on February 15, 2023. Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

The hospital also created new training programs, a new system to report racism, and eight new ​​employee resource groups after having none in 2018, according to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics. 

Allina Health Systems said in a written statement that it is committed to providing care to their employees, patients, and community regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, and other factors.

“As an employer, we’ve prioritized improving the cultural awareness of our leaders and implemented unconscious bias training for all employees,” said Allina’s statement. “We have also developed and grown our Employee Resource Groups, which are crucial to fostering a sense of belonging, diversity, and inclusivity and to providing important input and feedback.”

Allina Health Systems also said it has a culture throughout the organization that allows employees to speak up when they witness or experience racism on the job.

“We foster a speak-up culture throughout our organization and provide numerous opportunities to raise code of conduct violations or concerns through our system-wide safety huddles, Allina Health’s Integrity Line, and our human resources functions,” Allina Health Systems said.

In a statement to Sahan Journal, M Health Fairview* said comments its employees made in the study mirror the same issues that prompted the healthcare provider to launch the HOPE Commission in 2021. 

The HOPE Commission’s purpose is to hold M Health Fairview accountable to advancing equity as an employer, healthcare provider, academic institution, and corporate citizen, the statement said.

“We are proud of the progress we have made. At the same time, we acknowledge the issues we are collectively tackling are historic, systemic and broad ranging in nature and will also take time to fully address,” said M Health Fairview’s statement. “We are committed to continuing our work to make substantial short-term changes to advance equity and anti-racism while also continuing our commitment to longer-term systemic transformation necessary.”

M Health Fairview also highlighted other steps it has taken to address issues highlighted in the study, including: updating policies to address racism, enhancing ways to report discrimination, and expanding employee training about bias and discrimination in the workplace, among others. 

Union leaders’ demands

In January, some of the study’s participants began discussing their next course of action to address racism in area hospitals. They said a partnership between union members and hospital leaders could help address future issues.

Campbell noted the importance of workers banding together to speak out when reporting or discussing harassment. She said she was able to publicly reveal her workplace experience because she was among fellow study participants in a group setting where others also openly discussed their experiences with Sahan Journal.

“We’re happy to be part of this group that will hopefully bring our stories out to let the world know that we are hoping for change,” Campbell said.

Union members are asking for a working partnership with diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders in each hospital, and monthly or bi-monthly meetings with hospital leaders to report incidents of racism. They also want to track their employers’ responses to such allegations.

Edward Goetz, the University of Minnesota professor who wrote the study, said “casual” racism and more “forceful” racism can produce an alienating workplace. He said he was taken back by some of the stories he heard from participants. 

Goetz was asked by the union to look into the issue after union members repeatedly brought up examples of racism at work.

“This kind of environment is just terribly alienating and can produce anxiety and even detrimental health outcomes as well,” Goetz said.

Goetz, who is also the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University, said he hopes his work will be used by policymakers and hospital leaders to affect change.

“We hope that policymakers will read it,” Goetz said, “And that will prompt them to, perhaps investigate on their own and to respond to the issues.” 

*UPDATE: This story has been updated with comments from M Health Fairview.


Alfonzo Galvan is a reporter for Sahan Journal, covering work, labor, small business, and entrepreneurship. Before joining Sahan Journal, he covered breaking news and immigrant communities in South Dakota,...