Laundry workers expose Cleveland’s own “sweat” shop

Think about working in temperatures, upwards of 100 degrees on hot days. Finding used hypodermic needles, human body parts, fluids and excrement, umbilical cords and other biohazard material. No safety harnesses for workers climbing over 10 feet in the air on scissor lifts. Nonexistent water breaks and a minimal amount of fans to cool the facility on extremely hot days.

Now think about enduring all of this while earning $8.34 an hour.

Think I am talking about a sweatshop located in a Third World country? Well, think again.

I have just described some of the horrible conditions Sodexo workers at a Cleveland industrial laundry  face on a daily basis. The laundry’s biggest client is the Cleveland Clinic.

It doesn’t stop there either. Poor ventilation and circulation of the air causes oppressive heat inside the plant, even during cold weather. One worker described going in and out of the plant like, “going from a stove to a refrigerator.” Doors are thrown open in the winter, sending bone chilling drafts into areas of the facility, just increasing the uncomfortable surroundings the workers have to face. Machines are overloaded and workers are expected to meet production by any means possible.

One wonders how these conditions can exist, especially in this day and age. There are extensive regulations on how bio-hazardous materials are disposed of in the hospitals, but none covering the linens sent out to be laundered. Bio-hazardous material doesn’t cease to be dangerous when it soils the linens in the hospital.

The Cleveland-area Workers Rights Board, established in the spring of 1994 as a project of Cleveland Jobs with Justice, was recently reconvened and agreed to hear this extraordinary case. Members of the board include elected officials, along with leaders from faith, labor and community organizations. State Representative Mike Foley, the Rev. Marvin McMickle of Antioch Baptist Church and Stanley Miller, executive director of the Cleveland NAACP, were the members of the Workers Rights Board convening to hear this compelling testimony from Sodexo laundry workers. 

The strategy of the Cleveland Workers Rights Board, one of the first in the country, is to provide another level of support to workers who are being mistreated by unfair employers. It is used to enhance the democratic rights of working people when they are faced with unfair labor practices like the conditions in the Sodexo laundry.  

After careful deliberation, the three board members hearing this testimony will issue their report, along with their recommendations. The report will be made public and will be delivered to management at Sodexo.

Before the rights board hearing, I accompanied the workers and members from the community at the plant to deliver petitions to John Masso, plant manager, calling for safe conditions for the workers. Masso refused to accept the petitions insisting on only reading a prepared statement. He had also been sent a written request to present testimony at the hearing, giving the company an opportunity to defend their position, so I asked if he intended to appear. Masso refused to answer, stating he was only going to read the prepared statement.

After hearing the testimony of the workers I wonder; will that be the same statement Masso will deliver if someone is injured at the plant? The testimony certainly leads me to believe that place is one hazardous accident waiting to happen. Let’s just hope it doesn’t before action is taken to greatly improve the working conditions.

So, if you happen to find yourself in a bed in the Cleveland Clinic hospital system, stop and think about the workers who laundered your linen because you certainly do not want to think about whether you are sleeping on the remnants of someone else’s hospital waste.


Photo: Workers rally at Sodexo laundry in Cleveland, July 8.   (Debbie Kline)