Dirty Commercial Laundry: An Investigation
Hidden from the public and overlooked by regulators, immigrant workers in the laundry industry face a litany of hazards and abuse. Our six-month investigation reveals the extent of their exploitation.
Gonzalez got away from Singh by telling him she had a boyfriend. She got to her workstation at the laundry and began feeding sheets into a machine. “I was shaking. I was very nervous. I felt my blood boiling,” she described in a later testimony.
This incident, which Marlyn Gonzalez recounted to me in an interview, was part of a lawsuit brought in 2012 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), suing Suffolk Laundry Services for a sexually hostile work environment and for retaliation by management against all eight plaintiffs when they complained. Suffolk denied both charges. (The company did not respond to the writer’s request for comment.)
I first met Gonzalez, now thirty, and her close friend Xiomara Veliz-Amaya, thirty-four, last summer in a parking lot outside a Dunkin’ Donuts in Ronkonkoma, New York, about forty-five minutes away from Riverhead, where they both live. It was July and too hot to be outside, so the three of us and a translator sat in Veliz-Amaya’s car with the air conditioning running. Until then—around six years since the two women left Suffolk Laundry (Gonzalez was fired for complaining, while retaliation against Veliz-Amaya eventually forced her to leave)—neither of them had been ready to speak openly about what had happened to them. Their families and friends still don’t know all of the details.
The encounter in the parking lot wasn’t the first time Singh had abused Gonzalez. For years, especially since he became a manager in 2010, Singh had tormented Gonzalez and several of her female coworkers, often on a daily basis. Singh had his favorites. He kissed them on the lips; caressed their hands; touched their hips and buttocks; pressed his body up against theirs; and harassed them with lewd notes, comments, and gestures. According to Gonzalez’s testimony, Singh said that he wanted to perform oral sex on her. He also wrote her notes—one telling her how beautiful she was, while others were more explicit. When the lawsuit was filed, Singh denied the allegations and said he “didn’t think [he] did anything wrong”; he also claimed he’d received no training on sexual harassment.
None of the women initially knew where to turn—they spoke little English, and were migrants from Mexico and Central America. Several of the women also described feeling intimidated by the owners of the laundry, and they didn’t know if they had any recourse or union representation. For at least four years, Gonzalez suffered in silence, working at the laundry six days a week.
“This is something that hurt me emotionally—a lot. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” she told me. “It’s so difficult to have to go to the place you work where you just know that all of that abuse is waiting for you. And you have no choice—you have to go back.”
While most New Yorkers recognize the thousands of storefront laundromats scattered across the city that offer drop-off washing or dry-cleaning services as well as coin-operated machines, few may be familiar with larger corporate-owned commercial laundromats, to whom these services are increasingly being contracted. Many of us have likely used a sheet or table cloth cleaned in a commercial laundry, which typically provides services for hotels, hospitals, restaurants, and neighborhood laundromats that outsource their laundry. The commercial laundry industry is growing: in the New York metropolitan area alone, the number of laundry and dry cleaning workers grew from about 9,480 in 2011 to 12,680 in 2016, according to the Department of Labor.
Commercial laundries can range from massive industrial operations employing hundreds or even thousands of workers to more modest “sweatshop” laundries, with anything from a dozen employees to fifty or more, like Suffolk, where Marlyn Gonzalez worked. It is in such commercial laundries, most of which are housed in large factory-like buildings in Queens, Long Island, and the Bronx, that thousands of laundry workers—largely African-American or immigrant women—labor in hot, crowded, and often dangerous or toxic conditions to clean the linens used by millions of New Yorkers. And it is these workers who endure the consequences of an industry plagued by poor working conditions, exploitation, and abuse.
Gonzalez and Veliz-Amaya’s stories of having to endure such conditions with little recourse are not unique. Laundry workers experience wage theft, injuries, threats of deportation, and dangerous workplaces, which, in some cases, have been the site of fatal accidents. The largely female and immigrant workforce has meant that some workers are also subject to sexual harassment or assault, much like that faced by Gonzalez and her coworkers. Workers whose rights are violated often do not come forward because of their immigration status or because they lack legitimate union representation, allowing the cycle of abuse to continue.
Despite occasional media attention to some of the most tragic incidents, the plight of laundry workers has gone largely unnoticed, and therefore generated little political momentum to improve oversight of the industry. The lack of public scrutiny combined with patchy regulation and enforcement has meant that employers get away with negligence and abuse. And so as the commercial laundry industry grows, so too does the exploitation.
I spent six months investigating the industry—visiting laundries, reviewing hundreds of pages of public records and private legal filings, and speaking with workers, union representatives, academics, and attorneys. I found that laundry is a dirty, corrupt industry.
Marlyn Gonzalez came to the United States from Guatemala when she was sixteen. Her mother had arrived in the country a few years prior. Now working at a furniture factory, she spends her free time with friends and her Salvadoran boyfriend, whom she met in an English class at a nearby community college. Her dark brown eyes lit up and she laughed as she described her active social life.
Xiomara Veliz-Amaya, by contrast, is less outgoing. She came from Honduras to the United States when she was twenty, because, she said, in Honduras “one’s life doesn’t matter.” In Riverhead, she lives with her husband, also a Salvadoran, to whom she is “attached at the hip.” When I met Veliz-Amaya in the summer of 2016, her hair was piled loosely into a puffy bun, revealing her studded earrings and her round, rosy cheeks. She described how she had imagined life in the United States to be much like the movies, but after working at Suffolk, reality set in. “It definitely changed the perception of what American life should be. You assume you’ll be treated well, because supposedly this is a country of opportunities, laws, and fairness,” she said. But, “you have to seek it out because otherwise it doesn’t exist.”
Both women found work at Suffolk—Gonzalez in 2005 and Veliz-Amaya in 2004. Suffolk, an operation of about fifty or so workers, cleans linens for dozens of hospitals and restaurants on Long Island. Like most commercial laundries, Suffolk operates like a factory assembly line: soiled linens and textiles are sorted into different categories, washed, ironed, packed, and then delivered back to the customer. Men wash the dirty linens, while women fold and iron them by machine or by hand once they have been cleaned. For about fifty hours a week, Gonzalez and Veliz-Amaya worked on the assembly line along with about two or three dozen other women.
Linens, especially from hospitals that contracted Suffolk’s services, could be contaminated with blood, feces, or syringes. According to Veliz-Amaya, they sometimes remained dirty even after washing, or were mixed with dirty linens in the hamper from which the women would collect them. But the women lacked any protective gear or training about how to handle such items. “We would get blood and stuff on our hands,” said Veliz-Amaya. “Some people got poked by needles.”
It is not unusual for commercial laundry workers to risk infection on the job, and even larger operations can forego basic health and safety precautions. According to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection report, another commercial laundry named Angelica Textile Services was fined for multiple health and safety violations at its facility in Batavia, New York in 2004. The facility provided laundry services to hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics in Western New York. OSHA found that the 200 workers at Angelica who handled soiled laundry processed approximately 600,000 pounds of linens per week, much of which was visibly contaminated with feces, blood, and urine, and that lack of proper training meant employees were at risk of contracting HIV and/or Hepatitis B. A health official reported being “shocked that a company of Angelica’s size would have such serious issues.” The report concluded that “in 2004, there is no excuse for a major corporation to have such a ‘lax’ attitude towards employee health and safety.” Angelica has been cited for more recent violations, as well: in 2011, when an ironing machine crushed a mechanic’s hand, OSHA found four alleged violations of workplace safety standards at its facility in Massachusetts, Royal Institutional Services Inc. Angelica did not respond to the author’s request for comment.
But, unless a tragic accident or fatality occurs, which would catch OSHA’s attention, laundry facilities can go months, even years, without seeing an OSHA inspector. This creates a system in which some laundries can ignore basic worker health and safety standards—like providing protective gear or training on risks of infection—with little consequence.
There are more than fifty industrial laundries in and around New York that employ thousands of workers, most of whom are recent immigrants, mainly women. These workers typically operate in noisy, dirty, stressful conditions, and are frequently exposed to harmful chemicals. Meg Fosque, an organizer at Make the Road New York who testified before New York City Council in 2015, described the laundry industry as one plagued by rampant violations of labor law and exploitation of the largely immigrant workforce by “unscrupulous employers.” Fosque concluded, “the industry as a whole has a disturbing track record and is in need of oversight.”
Until legislation was passed in 2016, there were no comprehensive and enforceable standards or licenses for industrial laundries in New York. While OSHA regulation operates at the federal level, no standardized regulation currently exists at the city or state level for worker health and safety. And OSHA standards aren’t always effective at protecting workers from health and safety hazards because, according to Eric Frumin, Health and Safety Director at Change to Win, employers can ignore them without repercussions, enforcement is poor, there are too few inspectors, and, for massive companies, the penalties for violating health and safety standards (civil fines or misdemeanor charges, for instance) are too low to create a meaningful deterrent.
As well as exposing workers to safety risks, lax standards can also affect the general public because dirty or contaminated laundry can be sent back to customers, with potentially serious consequences. Between August 2008 and July 2009, the New York Times reported that five children at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans died of an outbreak of a flesh-eating fungal infection, most likely spread by linens contaminated at a laundry facility or while being delivered. (While rare, such cases where disease or serious illness has been traced to contaminated linens, machines, or unsafe delivery methods show the potential risks of inadequate standards and enforcement.)
Less extreme cases also illustrate the effects of poor working conditions on the consumer end. Miguel Figueroa, originally from Puerto Rico, testified to the New York City Council in June 2015 about B & M Linen (also known as Miron & Sons Linen Corp), the industrial laundry he worked at for more than six years in the Bronx. (This laundry filed for bankruptcy in 2012, and has since closed.) Figueroa described working without gloves while handling soiled linens, sometimes contaminated with blood, feces, or vomit. This laundry, he said, also demonstrated carelessness regarding the hygiene of the product that it sent back to its clients. The same bins would be used for soiled and clean linen and “sent out to the luxury hotels in Manhattan where people had no idea that those bins were not really disinfected.” In the worst instances, he said, the laundry sent out unwashed linens, packing them up as if they were clean. “I just have to say that if I were to stay in a Manhattan hotel I would really have doubts when I wiped my mouth with a napkin or when I put my head down on my pillow because I know where that stuff has been,” he told the Council. (The owner of B & M linen, Boris Markus, told the New York Daily News in 2015 that there was “absolutely no truth” to Figueroa’s allegations.)
Dangerous working conditions and serious risk of infection and disease in the industry due to poor standards and enforcement became the focus of legislators, immigrant rights groups, and union representatives, who warned of a possible risk to public health. Their efforts to better regulate the industry on the consumer side saw recent success when new legislation, called the City Laundry Equity and Accountability (or CLEAN) Act, was passed by the New York City Council in August 2016. Prior to passage of this bill, the licensing scheme of laundries, overseen by the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), dated back to the early twentieth century, leaving gaps in regulation. While retail laundromats and dry cleaners are regulated by the DCA, no legal standards existed to oversee the cleanliness of industrial laundries and their delivery trucks. The CLEAN Act is designed to bring the regulation up to date with how the industry has evolved, by creating industry-wide cleanliness standards for hotel sheets, restaurant napkins, hospital garb, and uniforms. A May 2015 report to promote the bill introduced jointly by City Council Member Richie Torres and labor and immigrant organizations, like the New York Immigration Coalition and Make the Road New York, connected consumer and worker safety by arguing that “without sufficient oversight to ensure proper procedures are followed, irresponsible laundry operators put both workers and the public at risk.”
But it is not entirely clear whether the bill, which focuses primarily on consumer protection and public health, will effectively protect workers. The bill mainly establishes minimum standards of hygiene and cleanliness at the laundry and for handling linens, but fewer provisions specifically address worker protections. Two provisions of the act specifically stipulate that laundries, in order to receive accreditation, must prove they have worker compensation insurance and disability benefits, as well as insurance for bodily injury and death. An application may also be denied if a laundry has been found guilty of “nonpayment or underpayment of wages.” No other provisions explicitly address workers’ rights—there is nothing in the act that deals with protective gear, safety training for workers, or the right to unionize. At the federal level, OSHA oversees worker health and safety in industrial laundries, which limits the power of local jurisdictions to intervene in such issues. “OSHA seems to have very little influence, so maybe this will be an added incentive to improve their standards,” said Wilfredo Larancuent, a vice president at Workers United Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, a union that represents laundry workers.
Megan Chambers, chief of staff at Workers United Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, said they work to organize employees from such facilities that service multiple customers including Manhattan’s luxury hotels. The CLEAN Act, she said, is specifically focused on consumer protection, meant to protect those who sleep or eat in Manhattan’s luxury hotels and restaurants. “There are a lot of reasons for that,” she said. “There was this huge gaping hole in the sense that industrial laundries were not licensed by the city and yet were delivering to almost all doctors’ offices, restaurants, hotels. They came into contact with millions and millions of New Yorkers every year, and yet if you found out there was something outrageous, there was nobody to complain to, so there was no violation of anything.”
Eric Frumin of Change to Win agrees that workers will not be fully protected by the CLEAN Act. “The safety problems that workers have in laundries are . . . larger than are the problems that are addressed by that bill—it’s not a worker safety bill,” he concluded. Nor would it protect workers like Xiomara Veliz-Amaya and Marlyn Gonzalez from harassment.
The death of a laundry worker in 2007 was caught on film and made national headlines. Eleazar Torres Gomez—a Mexican immigrant living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who worked at Cintas, one of the largest commercial laundry companies in the United States—climbed onto a conveyer belt to dislodge jammed clothing, and was propelled into a running dryer. He remained in the machine for at least twenty minutes while it continued to spin, in a temperature of over 300 degrees, before he was found. “I will be haunted forever imagining the terror and pain he must have felt,” his son told a U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Workforce Protections in April 2008, a year after his father died.
In her remarks, the chairwoman of the Subcommittee, Lynn Woolsey, presented evidence that Cintas had been aware of the hazards that led to Gomez’s death, and “failed to take the necessary steps to prevent such an incident.” Following Gomez’s death, the Subcommittee asked OSHA to conduct a nationwide investigation of Cintas facilities. OSHA found forty-two willful violations, and proposed a fine of $2.8 million. “Plant management at the Cintas Tulsa laundry facility ignored safety and health rules that could have prevented the death of this employee,” concluded Edwin G. Foulke, Jr., assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. Cintas agreed to pay the fine but, in a 2010 statement to ABC News, denied responsibility for the accident.
Similar incidents have occurred in New York. In November 2011, twenty-four-year-old Milton Anzora, a laundry worker at a commercial facility in Long Island called Prestige Industries, was crushed to death by a conveyer shuttle (this facility has since closed). In 2015, OSHA found that the company continued to expose employees to similar hazards at its Paterson facility. “It is unacceptable when a company continues to neglect basic safety and health procedures, especially after experiencing a fatality. Prestige Industries’ deliberate failure to uphold its responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace is an indication that worker safety and health is not a priority, which is intolerable,” said Robert Kulick, OSHA’s regional administrator in New York. (The company did not respond to the writer’s request for comment.)
As of May 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 12,680 laundry and dry-cleaning workers in the New York metropolitan area working at commercial and storefront facilities. Between 2002 and 2017, OSHA conducted 54 inspections of commercial laundries in New York, finding a total of 231 violations. About 70 percent of those violations were found to be serious, meaning “the workplace hazard could cause an accident or illness that would most likely result in death or serious physical harm.” In cataloging the dangers of working in industrial laundries—the toxic chemicals, the poor working conditions, faulty equipment—Eric Frumin of Change to Win puts the risks workers face down to one main factor: management negligence.
“There’s a long and sordid history of the laundry industry abusing its workers, both on a small and grand scale . . . it tends to be an industry that would rather make money paying people less rather than taking the high road of increasing wages, improving technology,” Frumin told me when I spoke to him in July 2016. This was echoed by a 2000 New York Times article that found that earning an average wage of just over $7.50 an hour, “laundry employees are some of the lowest-paid unionized workers in New York.” While mean wages, according to the Department of Labor, have gone up to $11.69 as of 2016, laundry workers continue to be among the lowest-paid workers in New York.
There is also a stark division of labor and pay rates by gender. The best paid are the driving jobs, which are all done by men with legal immigration status and the ability to speak some English. The mid-level jobs involve heavy lifting in the washing room, and are also mostly done by men. The lowest wages are typically paid to women workers who fold and sort. Gonzalez’s trajectory is a case in point—when she began at Suffolk in 2005, she was paid $6 per hour, and by the time she left in 2011, her wages had gone up to a mere $7.25 per hour: a raise of $1.25 an hour in five years. “In these sweatshop conditions, the employers are stealing workers’ wages,” said Larancuent.
Poor wages are accompanied by poor benefits. The irony of workers on poverty wages washing the linens of luxury hotels was sharply illustrated in 2014, when laundry workers at Carnegie Linen, which serviced hotels like the Waldorf Astoria and the Ace Hotel, complained of underpayment, denial of time off, and being threatened by management. Megan Chamber of Workers United told the Mott Haven Herald that Carnegie’s workers barely earned minimum wage and had inadequate healthcare, pension plans, and retirement benefits.
These conditions are exacerbated by the demographic of the workforce. A 2007 Brennan Center study reported that as the industry grew, employers of industrial laundries found a pool of labor in immigrant women who had been displaced from the shrinking garment industry. Laundry workers thus tend to be migrants (with a significant portion being undocumented) and 70–80 percent female, allowing employers to pay them poorly or exploit them with few repercussions. As in other low-wage sectors, “there are correlations between the working conditions and [immigration] status—employers know that some workers might be less eager to speak out to enforce their rights if they fear some kind of retaliation,” said Elizabeth Joynes Jordan, an attorney now at Make the Road New York who represented seven of the plaintiffs in the Suffolk case in 2012. In a largely unregulated industry, immigrants—especially those without documentation—work in the shadows, hidden from the public.
Given the poor working conditions and exploitation in the laundry industry, unionization can have certain benefits for laundry workers. While it is difficult to estimate union density across the laundry industry, the Brennan Center reported in 2007 that 70–80 percent of workers in industrial laundries were unionized; many laundry workers in specific segments of the industry (like hotel laundries), however, continue to remain non-unionized. Like undocumented workers, unorganized workers are easier for companies to exploit and pay less; they also have less recourse to complain when they’re being ripped off. According to Frumin, unionized laundries are more likely to have safer working conditions, better benefits, and employers are more likely to uphold industry standards. By contrast, workers in non-unionized industrial facilities face more chronic health and safety violations—not only are they afraid to speak up if they face hazardous conditions, but without a strong union contract they don’t get healthcare or compensation for work-related injuries. Some employers are also contracted with “sweetheart unions,” which, on paper, provide all of the benefits of legitimate unions, but in reality are set up to defraud workers.
When Marlyn Gonzalez and Xiomara Veliz-Amaya garnered the courage to complain about their working conditions, they weren’t sure whom to call. Although their employer claimed to have a collective bargaining agreement with a union, and they knew they were paying dues of approximately $40 per month, they didn’t know where that money was going. They never received a copy of the agreement, and were never informed of their rights, they told me.
Although legitimate union representation, like Workers United Laundry, Dry Cleaning, and Allied Workers Joint Board and Workers United Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board (the union Larancuent and Chambers work for) work with laundry workers, so too do unions engaged in racketeering or in “sweetheart contracts” with management. These unions target workers with low English proficiency, charge them steep fees, and don’t provide benefits. These unions, though a small percentage of those operating throughout the industry, have been known to have ties to organized crime or be directed by individuals who have been indicted on insurance fraud or racketeering, as was alleged by the attorneys in the Suffolk case. According to a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and obtained through FOIA requests, officers of Local 660—the union representing workers at Suffolk—“have a long history of corrupt and criminal activity” dating back to the 1990s, when the union’s founder, Bryan McCarthy, was indicted for fraud and grand larceny in connection with another union, Teamsters Local 966. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters found Vincent Sombrotto, then president of that union, guilty of “embezzlement, dual unionism, and other breaches of fiduciary duty,” and “associate[ed] with organized crime.” There have been cases of employers of laundry facilities colluding with sweetheart unions to prevent workers from organizing, as was alleged by the attorneys in the Suffolk case, according to information obtained by the NLRB.
The women said they became desperate, and began looking elsewhere for help. “Because of fear we didn’t get together and do anything coordinated,” said Gonzalez. Many of the women, independent of one another, found a nun, Sister Margaret, who works with the Central American community out of a school in Riverhead. Sister Margaret later said the women were terrified. “They [were] afraid of all of the repercussions,” she said. “A lot of people accept the abuse because they need the job.” After months of encouraging the women to come forward, and meeting each of them confidentially, Sister Margaret set up a meeting with lawyers at LatinoJustice, a New York–based organization providing legal defense to Latino residents and immigrants. She told each of the women separately about the meeting.
“Everybody came, and the group became the group,” said Veliz-Amaya. “I saw people that day I had no idea they’d been complaining, and realized it for the first time,” said Gonzalez. They were told to think hard about the case, because, the lawyers warned them, there could be retaliation. But they went forward, and the EEOC took up their case.
The case dragged on for nearly four years, and the women, some of whom continued to work at Suffolk, described many moments of fear. In retaliation for filing charges, according to the formal complaint, some were given tougher jobs at the laundry or arbitrarily reduced work hours; a male employee vandalized Gonzalez’s car and she was eventually fired for complaining. But Elizabeth Joynes Jordan, one of the lead attorneys representing the women, reassured them. “She was full of empowerment, encouraging us, and she said we could do this. We had to keep struggling, what we were facing was not fair, there were laws, and that we were fighters,” Gonzalez recalled. The case was eventually settled out of court for $582,000, distributed between the eight women. As part of the settlement, the company would institute sexual harassment training.
At the time, it seemed like a victory. But, the women told me, not much has changed. “The harasser continues to work there same as always,” Veliz-Amaya said. “The fact that they paid a certain amount of money doesn’t mean it went away. He’s still there.”
Each of the complainants in the case has since left the laundry. Two of the women were fired in retaliation for filing EEOC charges; one was fired for rejecting the manager’s advances. Others alleged that their working conditions became more laborious after they sought legal help and have since left. “You could say that [there was justice] in our case,” said Veliz-Amaya. Though, she added, “I think there’s a ton of people who are facing the same problem, but because of the fear they say nothing.”
Annie Hylton is an international lawyer and investigative journalist from Canada, currently an adjunct assistant professor with the Global Migration Program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She writes about gender, immigration, human rights, and conflict, and has worked in the Middle East, Central America, and East Africa.