Waiting to Clean the City’s Dirty – and Dangerous – Laundry

Eighty percent of the workers at the nearly 3,000 laundromats in New York are Hispanic and Caribbean women. (Photo by Pedro F. Frisneda via El Diario)

Eighty percent of the workers at the nearly 3,000 laundromats in New York are Hispanic and Caribbean women. (Photo by Pedro F. Frisneda via El Diario)

[The story below accompanies a short update on the stalled Clean Act, legislation introduced in February 2015 by New York City Council members Ritchie Torres and Dan Garodnick to license and regulate local laundry facilities. “The Clean Act is being reviewed, and at this point there is not a date set yet for a committee hearing,” said a spokesperson for Council member Torres.]

Daysi Raimundo has seen it all – from clothes drenched in vomit or soiled with feces, to sheets and towels soaked in sperm and other body fluids.

The woman from Guerrero, México, has been working at a large laundromat for six years and says she has had to “work miracles” not to become contaminated by what she has found in some clothes.

“You can find all sorts of things in the clothes. We have seen used preservatives, bloodied sanitary pads, dirty baby diapers and even vomit. Sometimes the clothes smell like semen,” said the woman, adding that often they need to use chemicals to clean up the dirt.

“We do what we can. We use ammonia, powder, everything. Sometimes we need to soak the clothes for hours, and if the dirt does not go away we do another washing cycle,” says Raimundo, who works in Astoria, Queens.

But dirt and lack of hygiene are not the only secrets that used clothes reveal. According to Raimundo, the pockets of shirts and pants can contain medicines, pills and even marijuana left by the owners.

Like her, thousands of immigrants work at city laundromats where hurried New Yorkers use the drop-off laundry service.

“People don’t even have the sensitivity to at least rinse the vomited clothes; they just wrap them up and put them in the dirty linen bag. Sometimes they smell really bad, but since this is our job we have to put up with it,” said Raimundo.

“We have seen underwear soiled with excrement. Sometimes I wonder if they know what toilet paper is, as if we weren’t in the 21st century. It’s not fair,” complains the worker while she loads one of the washing machines for another 30-minute cycle.

According to the organization Laundry Workers Center (LWC), there are 2,702 laundromats in the five boroughs, and 80 percent of the workers are Hispanic and Caribbean women.

“On top of body fluids and blood, many of those workers are exposed to different chemicals but they don’t know what type and what effects they may cause, because they are not provided with any kind of training. They don’t get such protective gear as gloves or masks either,” said Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran, co-director at LWC.

Beyond the unpleasant surprises for those low-income workers – Raimundo earns $8.75 per hour – what’s more worrying are the health hazards involved in handling clothes containing bacteria and microorganisms that may spread diseases.

According to experts, dirty laundry – especially underwear – contains germs and bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which are transmitted through feces and which can cause stomach infections such as dysentery. Some believe that there is a risk of getting infected with the hepatitis A virus.

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According to doctor Linda Delp, director of the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety & Health Program, people should not get exposed to dangerous substances in clothes. “You may be exposed by breathing or swallowing the substance, or when it enters the skin because of a cut or injection.”

“Any clothing containing blood or any body fluid containing blood – that is, most of them – can be infectious and people should be trained about what are the dangers and how to handle those materials.”

The expert recommends those workers to take precautions to prevent being exposed. “If they have open wounds they must cover them. Also, employers must provide their employees with gloves.”

Complaints received at the LWC offices indicate that in general most workers present such problems as back pain, dry skin, rashes, fungi and eczemas on the hands, as well as respiratory problems.

“Many times this affects their vision, because their eyes are exposed to chemicals and all kinds of detergents,” said Rodríguez-Aran.

One of the most worrying problems, according to the activist, is that many of those workers don’t have medical insurance, so they don’t have anywhere to turn for help when they get sick. “Unfortunately they don’t have many alternatives. And as a rule, when you don’t even earn the minimum wage, you don’t get sick days either. Many of them don’t know about workers’ compensation laws, so they just keep working and falling sick.”

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According to a report unveiled in May 2015, bad working conditions in city laundromats represent a threat not only to the workers’ health but also the general public.

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“Our experience with laundromats that handle hospital bed sheets is that there are infection problems with human fluids, pathogens transmitted through blood, biological risks and needlestick injuries,” said Delp. “If there is clothing contaminated with chemicals or body fluids it must be put in different bags that don’t leak, with special tags, and people should not carry those bags close to their body.”

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According to the expert, many laundromat workers are also exposed to hot environments with little ventilation. “Workers must have access to drinking water and have the right to take breaks if they need them, because if they dehydrate it can be a big problem,” said Delp.

Another hazard at laundromats are falls, because floors are wet and slippery. Add to this the pain in the back or joints due to working for hours standing and with little rest.

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