(Bloomberg) — Workers at a leading commercial laundry firm that cleans sheets for some of New York City’s biggest hospitals say every day on the job places them at greater risk of Covid-19 infection.
Industry CEOs from all over the U.S. voiced concern earlier this month about potential outbreaks, too. As a critical component of a healthcare system buckling under the strain of a nationwide surge, commercial laundry companies have become essential in the fight against the pandemic.
But their employees’ unions contend that while some operators have taken adequate measures to protect workers, others have not.
“Some of my representatives walk in to inspect, and hand sanitizer stations are empty. Workers are typically inches away from each other,” said Richard Minter, assistant manager at Philadelphia Joint Board Workers United. Unions complain that access to masks or gloves can be limited, leaving it to employees who make little more than minimum wage to buy their own.
Unitex Textile Rental Services is among the biggest players in a $3 billion industry that keeps hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities running by washing soiled linens, uniforms and gowns. Five Unitex laundry workers interviewed by Bloomberg News contend some workspaces have poor ventilation, or a lack of social distancing and limited access to personal protective equipment.
Brígida Vidal is a production worker at Unitex’s Med-Apparel facility in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where she said workers are given only one mask a day, that gloves are doled out sparingly and that social distancing is rarely enforced. “We don’t have enough to protect us,” Vidal said. “There’s been times where I take gloves I find in the pockets of used scrubs because it’s all I can get.”
Vidal makes $12.50 an hour. A Mexican immigrant and the sole breadwinner for a family of four, she said going to work is a risk she “feels forced to take.” When the pandemic fell like a hammer on the New York metropolitan area last spring, Vidal said she reported symptoms including coughing, fatigue and a sore throat to her manager and Unitex’s company physician.
Instead of a two-week quarantine, she said she was expected to return to work a week later. At the time, Covid-19 tests were hard to come by in the U.S. In September, Vidal said she tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. She recently bought face shields and shared them with a few co-workers. “It’s the company’s job to do this,” she said.
Maritza Garcia, another worker in Unitex’s Perth Amboy “soil room,” said managers brush off her requests for more protective equipment. “I’m told there’s not enough,” Garcia said. “I don’t feel safe. For the work we are doing, we deserve better.”
Unitex Chief Executive Officer Robert Potack denied allegations of unsafe working conditions. “Masks and gloves are provided daily and replenished upon request,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg. The company encourages social distancing and hand-hygiene, he said, and has “conducted thorough training on our Covid-19 protocols and policies.”
In Unitex’s Mount Vernon facility, just north of New York City, Reynaldo Hernandez said he knew of four co-workers who fell ill with the virus this year. “In the summer, it was really bad,” he said. Sometimes management would provide him with a replacement mask, but other times he was told there weren’t enough.
Hernandez said that while he managed to stay healthy through the first infection wave, he fears this latest surge. “It’s coming back, and we are all crowded together with bad ventilation,” he said. “We are still kept in the dark about who is sick. I’m terrified.”
The catastrophic swell of coronavirus cases gripping the U.S. right now has overshadowed the initial outbreak that killed more than 50,000 in the Northeast last spring, and a second wave that killed tens of thousands more in the South and West following premature re-openings. Now, with more than 17 million confirmed infections and close to 320,000 dead, hospitals and healthcare facilities in every corner of the nation are filling up.
When it comes to soiled hospital laundry, Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at The Johns Hopkins Health System, said “evidence suggests that it’s harder to catch the virus from a soft surface (such as fabric) than it is from frequently touched hard surfaces like elevator buttons or door handles.”
But laundry employees contend that handling sheets and gowns used by Covid-positive patients is just part of a perfect storm of crowded workplaces and insufficient company precautions.
Erik Scott, chief executive officer of Soriant Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in healthcare support services, said linen companies were already busy before Covid-19 appeared, thanks to a growing trend of outsourced laundry services. Unitex recently opened a 188,000-square-foot facility in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and said it expects to open another in 2021.
According to industry lobby group Textile Rental Services Association, commercial laundry firms are getting even more work now thanks to healthcare providers that are reluctant to let their workers wash their own uniforms.
It wasn’t until New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. and the Speaker of New Jersey’s General Assembly wrote Unitex CEO Potack on Dec. 1 that the company disclosed how many workers had been infected with Covid-19, said Albert Arroyo, co-manager of the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United/SEIU. The union represents workers in 10 of Unitex’s 12 facilities.
“The grueling services provided by these essential workers have helped ensure the safety of patients, medical professionals, and so many others during the ongoing public health crisis,” Pallone wrote. He urged Unitex to “uphold critical Covid-19 safety standards.”
On Dec. 3, Potack informed union leaders that 10% of the workforce at the Perth Amboy facility tested positive for Covid-19 over the course of the pandemic, according to Arroyo. The union official also said Potack disclosed that in April, Unitex had been aware of eight positive cases among production workers at the facility.
Potack said in an interview that there have been only two cases of Covid-19 at the Perth Amboy facility since April. The CEO said the infection rate at the location “is well below” national and state averages, though he declined to provide specific numbers. “There is no evidence to make any claim that the cases were transmitted at work,” Potack added.
The CEO said the company had made previous disclosures to union leaders, but added that he didn’t recall the dates or details. “We responded to and welcomed a conversation with members of Congress to explain the facts,” he said.
A fourth generation, privately owned family business, Unitex is one of the top healthcare laundry and linen supply providers in the country, according to Grand View Research Inc. It operates facilities across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts, with 1,750 workers processing 300 million pounds of linen annually for hospitals including Manhattan’s Memorial Sloane Kettering, Mount Sinai Beth Israel and New-York Presbyterian. As of 2014, the company generated $150 million in revenue.
Unitex has been embroiled in collective bargaining negotiations over its Perth Amboy facility since July. Potack said he believed union complaints about coronavirus risks are part of a broader strategy to extract concessions. “They are hell-bent on trying to maintain a pension for future employees,” he said of the union.
On Dec. 10, workers gathered in front of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx to demand a wage increase, the continuation of pension benefits and that Unitex commit to basic Covid-19 protections, including providing two face masks daily and requiring six feet of social distance between employees. Potack said the company doesn’t “believe any more policies and procedures need to be included in the collective bargaining agreement.”
New York City Council member Ritchie Torres, who was just elected to Congress, also attended to support Unitex workers. An advocate for health protections in industrial laundries, Torres was a lead sponsor of the Clean Act, a local law which set sanitary standards for industrial laundries in 2016.
“I want to send a crystal clear message to hospitals,” Torres said. You “are judged by the company you keep, and you should hold your contractors accountable for respecting their workers.” Unitex hospital clients including Lincoln, Yale New Haven, Mount Sinai Beth Israel, New York Presbyterian, and Memorial Sloane Kettering didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Outside of laundry rooms, Unitex’s truck drivers are also complaining about safety issues.
“It’s not easy work. I’m picking up soiled linens that sometimes aren’t sealed properly,” said Kevin Kucker, a driver for Unitex’s Newburgh, New York, facility, which isn’t the subject of contract negotiations. A lack of transparency around workers getting infected has compounded the anxiety, he said.
If the company said, “‘look—someone got sick [so] we’re going to have to get you guys tested to see if everything’s okay,’ that would show they cared,” Kucker said. “ They never did that.”
Kathy Hanshew is a manager of the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board, Workers United/SEIU union, which represents industrial laundry workers across 12 states. She said that, nationally, the union has seen cases where employers weren’t providing masks at all. But some laundry companies have indeed been working with unions and their members.
Pennsylvania commercial laundry company Clean Uniform Rental has responded positively to union demands, said Minter, of the Philadelphia Joint Board Workers United. The company gave out a version of hazard pay: $150 a week in addition to what it calls “hero pay,” which provided a week’s worth of wages to workers across all levels.
“Of course there’s a cost to all of this. But this is a crisis,” Clean Uniform Rental CEO Jim Wasserson said. While the company has had sporadic Covid-19 infections, contact-tracing has helped avoid outbreaks, he said. “At least once a week we have a meeting to make sure everyone knows what’s going on,” Wasserson said. “Your employees need to feel safe.”