In part one of this series, hear directly from Daniel Bustillo, the executive direction of the Healthcare Career Advancement Program that is working to dismantle institutional barriers for Black and brown healthcare workers. 

In 2020, at the age of 49, Trinidad Garcia de Ochoa went back to school—sort of. At the time, she was a healthcare worker at an Irvine, California, Kaiser Permanente hospital, where she spent 12 years doing strenuous housekeeping work. She decided it was time for a change and through her union—the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Healthcare Workers West (UHW)—she enrolled in a program that would allow her to move up into a better paying union job in a new department.

The program Garcia de Ochoa enrolled in was offered through the Joint Employer Education Fund, an education association affiliate of the Healthcare Career Advancement Program. H-CAP, as it’s known, is a national labor management organization comprised of healthcare employers and SEIU locals that provide programs, trainings, and educational opportunities to healthcare workers historically locked out of career advancement opportunities. Healthcare is one of the most segregated industries in the United States, and this is especially true for low-wage healthcare jobs. According to the Brookings Institute, as of 2019, 79% of workers in health services were women, with the entry level overwhelmingly comprised of Black women, Latinas, and immigrants. H-CAP is trying to chip away at these structural inequalities by creating a pipeline of healthcare workers of color into higher paying union jobs.

Garcia de Ochoa now works in sterile processing, where she plays a crucial role in stopping the spread of disease and infection by sterilizing devices used in surgeries and other medical procedures. In other words, she’s on the frontline of infection control. Tackling this new role was a major career shift, but the 50-year-old said that enrolling in the H-CAP program changed the course of her career. She recently spoke to Prism about overcoming fear and working through the pandemic—and she had some words of advice for other Latino immigrants in the healthcare industry.

Here she is, in her own words:

I was a housekeeper at a Kaiser Permanente for 12 years—in the operating room, emergency room, and even delivery rooms. It was a very demanding and very physical job. It really takes a toll on you. I always wanted to move on and move up, but I didn’t know how to get there. For a long time I thought maybe my language was a barrier. I was one of seven children and I came from Mexico when I was already an adult. I thought maybe only speaking Spanish was making it harder to excel and find other work opportunities.

I did go to school before and have some training, but I was never able to go any further because I didn’t have the experience. I just never seemed to have what it would take to get to a different level. One day I was online and I saw my union posting about a sterile processing position offered through an H-CAP program. I knew I wanted to apply, but to be honest I felt scared. It would be a big change for me. I felt comfortable in my housekeeping job and trying something new felt overwhelming. But I realized that I was just used to being a housekeeper and it was time to do something else, so I decided to apply. I was accepted into the program.

I started the six-month intensive program in August 2019. Sometimes it was classes and other times it was on-the-job training. We also went into the field to get real practice and experience. Because my union works with H-CAP, I was able to really take advantage of the program and it changed my life for the better. It’s not just about making more money; it’s about an opportunity to grow and learn more and to have a new career.

Thanks to the union, my bosses were very accommodating and supportive. For me, one of the most wonderful things about the H-CAP program is that I was able to get paid while learning and gaining experience on the job. I never thought I would be able to earn a living while also working to advance my career. It helped me balance everything and without this help, I wouldn’t have been able to move up into a different department and get a better paying job. When we finished the program we had a graduation ceremony and I felt very proud of myself that day.

I’ve now been in sterile processing a little over a year and it’s totally different than working in the housekeeping department. I work directly with doctors and nurses and it requires a lot of organizational skills. I’m sterilizing instruments and rooms, making sure that the doctors have exactly what they need to perform surgeries and operations.  

My shift is from 3 PM to 11 PM. I like to wake up early and go on a little walk. I also like to have lunch with my family before I get ready for work. I am very, very close to my family and I love spending time with them.

It takes me about 25 minutes to get to work and from the time I get there, it’s like a blur. The first thing I do is check my schedule. There are a few positions in sterile processing and every day you get assigned to a different one. The rest of the day is spent sterilizing rooms and instruments, putting them together for the doctors, and running the instruments throughout the hospital, wherever they are needed. Most days it feels like I get there and the next time I look up, it’s almost time to go home. When I get home each night, it’s after midnight. I watch Friends, have a laugh, and then I try to get some rest for the next day.

I’ve always done my job very carefully, but it is different during COVID. The whole point of my job is to make sure things are sterilized so that no diseases or infections spread. That’s something I take very seriously. We now have extra protocols in place and we wear PPE. During the pandemic, this can be a demanding job because there are a lot more people coming in, but we are careful and thorough. The way I’ve always thought about my job is to sterilize everything like it’s carrying an infection, so that hasn’t changed.

Doing this job as part of the union makes me feel like I’m contributing during the pandemic. I believe frontline workers have been able to save a lot of lives. No matter what position you are in at the hospital—whether you are a housekeeper or in sterilization or a doctor—we all work together to keep the hospital running.

Even though I worked as a housekeeper in the healthcare industry, I did not know the opportunities that were available to me in the industry. I think a lot of people are probably in situations like I was; you want to accelerate your career, but you don’t know how to or it seems too hard. I think H-CAP creates a pathway for people like me. Of course I felt nervous and scared because I experienced barriers before. I want to encourage people like me—Latinos, immigrants—to take a chance.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.