Dirty Laundry

Sodexo's washing machines are modern, but its working conditions are medieval

Workers in the industrial laundry business have a rule of thumb for sorting dirty restaurant linens: You can tell how long they've been sitting around by how big the maggots are.

Workers at the Sodexo laundry in Collinwood would love to have those problems. But Sodexo doesn't handle restaurant linens; the bulk of its business comes from nine hospitals and three satellite clinics in the Cleveland Clinic system. When the trucks unload their ripe linens at Sodexo's soil sort station, workers find surprises more revolting than maggots.

There, sorters unpack piles of gowns, bed pads, towels, and blankets that arrive caked with blood, urine, feces, and anything else likely to leak from a hospitalized patient. Toiling in reinforced gloves and protective eyewear — masks are optional — Sodexo workers discover used needles and chunks of flesh. One man says he's found an umbilical cord.

"It's putrid," says soil sorter Duane Roberts.

"Like hell," adds co-worker Ellen Callahan.

But even those hazards are rendered mundane compared to the work itself. Employees describe long shifts amid unbearable conditions. On a normal day anytime of year, the heat from a dozen blast-furnace dryers can drive the temperature inside to more than 90 degrees. Workers at the presser station fold an exhausting 500 to 1,000 linens per hour, straining to meet their quotas. The detail blisters their fingers and cramps their arms. Some of them wear wrist braces. Despite the swelter and suffering, management offers few breaks for water, fresh air, or simple relief from the rigors of the job.

At 53, Callahan has been at Sodexo for eight years, making her one of the company's senior employees. But she still makes less $10 an hour. They all do.

Like most of the women at the plant, Callahan is short and thin, her appearance an odd mix of steely and fragile. She works with her hair pulled back, breathing rotten air through missing teeth. And she knows her station gets more fresh air than most.

The 60,000-square-foot operation is the Cleveland branch of an international company that mostly manages foodservice in 74 countries. The largest company of its kind in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico, Sodexo purchased part of Marriott's foodservice business in 2000 and got some laundries as part of the deal. But workers and unions alike say the company is still sorting out its laundry operation.

Sodexo built the Collinwood plant in 2004, and the Clinic outsourced its laundry there the same year. Those who had worked on the Clinic's in-house laundry crew were given three choices: Find a new job within the system, take a buyout, or transfer to Sodexo, where they could keep their seniority and benefits.

Callahan remembers being treated to an impressive presentation from Sodexo. The new bosses promised a comfortable environment, state-of-the-art machines, and easier work. But Sodexo, longtime employees say, delivered only the machines — and those machines were hungry. Though the Clinic had eliminated quotas several years earlier, the new plant brought them back — and jacked them much higher than ever before.

At the old Clinic laundry, each work station was equipped with a cool air vent. In summer, the vents worked so hard that the employees sometimes had to cover their arms to keep warm while they worked. Cool breezes are but a dream in Collinwood.

"It's a modern-day sweat shop," says Laura Moran, an organizer with Workers United, a group affiliated with Service Employees International, which is trying to unionize the plant, as it has with Sodexo operations in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

Callahan stays because of the seniority she's earned. Others say it's the only job they can find on the bus line. Sodexo is known for hiring immigrants and giving felons a second chance. It's perhaps a charitable gesture — but also one that breeds a workforce less inclined to speak up.

Finally, some at Sodexo are doing just that. Employees spent the early summer documenting their working conditions. In June, they filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, claiming production pressure from management leads to unsafe conditions. Also mentioned in the letter were the lack of formal water breaks, complaints that hot water is not provided for employees to wash their hands, and claims that biohazard receptacles are locked, leaving workers with nowhere to deposit needles and other hazardous waste they encounter during their shifts.

OSHA inspectors visited the plant over the summer, but they cited only two minor violations, both of which were classified as "other than serious." The plant has no violations from the past five years. OSHA has no guidelines governing acceptable temperatures in the workplace.

Sodexo's Cleveland management declined an interview request by Scene. Alfred King, the company's corporate spokesman, called the Cleveland workers' comments "unsubstantiated complaints from a small number of employees [that] create an impression of safety or employee mistreatment issues at our Collinwood laundry facility."

The numbers don't seem so small. Among the 100 or so employees at the Cleveland plant, around 30 attended an event at Antioch Baptist Church in East Cleveland on September 9. They described their workday to a crowd that included state Representative Mike Foley, who called the conditions "shameful."

They say they want what every worker wants: More money, better benefits, and longer breaks. For now, cool air vents would be a welcome start.

A rally outside the plant in July seemed to bring about some concessions from management, though workers say the effect of those changes has been negligible. Now, employees are allowed to take a "heat break" when they feel they need it, though they are barred from stepping outside. Management also installed three fans — the size of window fans — in the sorting area. Workers say the fans cut down dust in the air, but don't reduce the temperature or the smell.

"It's just blowing hot air around," says one employee, bursting into tears and on the verge of a panic attack. "It's just blowing hot air around."

Quotas, too, have been relaxed by almost 10 percent — at least informally. No written policy supports the change, workers say, and shift supervisors still do everything they can to keep the conveyor belt moving. When it stops, says wash room employee Liz Toliver, "They get irritable."

"You're worried about your quota," she says, "then people's health."

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Sodexo workers discover used needles and chunks of flesh. "It's putrid," says one employee.

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