Laundry workers essential in pandemic but shut out from benefits

Study finds poor conditions, low pay for workers who are often immigrants
Credit: (Laundry Workers Center)
File photo: A laundromat worker

The days at the laundromat in Edison were long and busy for Gaudencia Ramirez.

During an eight-hour shift, Ramirez said she would wash about 200 pounds of laundry, clean bathrooms, sweep floors and attend to the needs of customers. When she picked up an overnight shift with no overtime pay, Ramirez sometimes had to contend with unruly customers who were drunk and belligerent.

When Ramirez, who emigrated from Mexico 29 years ago, lost her job two years ago, she said she was not given notice or a severance package after 11 years at the same laundromat.

“It hurt me, and I feel bad, because I just don’t think it was fair,‘’ said Ramirez, who now works at another laundromat. “As immigrants, we feel like we can’t say anything, and we just swallow the anger.”

A report released this week on the working conditions of retail laundry workers found that many lack knowledge of their workplace rights and have been victims of wage theft, discrimination and unsafe working conditions. These workers, the study said, are highly vulnerable to harassment and violent behavior.

During the pandemic, these workers were declared essential workers and needed to stay on the job. They became more exposed to COVID-19, but largely lacked access to health care coverage, the study found. At the same time, the study found that most laundry workers did not receive government relief, due in part to their immigration status.

The study, titled “Washing for Dignity and Safety on the Job: Workers in the NJ Retail Laundromat Industry,” was a collaboration between the Laundry Workers Center, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the living and working conditions of low-wage laundry, warehouse and food service workers in New York City and New Jersey, and the Cornell ILR Worker Institute.

Working without adequate protection

“They were deemed essential workers but they were not recognized, and people don’t pay attention to this labor,’’ said Rosanna Rodriguez, co-executive director of the Laundry Workers Center, noting that many of those surveyed lost a family member, friend or co-worker to COVID-19. “People are not aware how hard it is to work in laundromats. People believe it’s an easy job because you see the worker alone in the job, but it’s very hard, because they have to perform different tasks and deal with dirty clothes without adequate protection.”

The report suggests the state do more to protect these workers, including increasing the capacity of the New Jersey Division of Wage and Hour Compliance to investigate and enforce labor laws, and apply penalties when employers do not comply with existing laws. The report also suggests that the state invest in public messaging campaigns to increase awareness of earned sick-leave laws and support on-site safety training that addresses specific issues laundromat workers face.

It also urges the state to support increased funding for pandemic relief for these workers now excluded from the benefits.

The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development has a web page, which can be translated into Spanish, with a summary of workplace protections provided under state law, regardless of immigration status, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

For the report, researchers surveyed 309 workers last year and visited 486 coin-operated laundries located in 121 towns. There are 537 coin-operated laundries in New Jersey, which employ about 2,000 workers, according to the report. The laundromats are classified as small businesses since they usually employ four to five workers at most.

Discrimination, wage theft 

Among the report’s findings:

  • Laundry workers in New Jersey are predominantly women and immigrants, making them more vulnerable to discrimination based on gender, race and national origin. Of those surveyed, 73% were immigrants from Latin America for whom English is not their first language.
  • A significant number of workers raised concerns about the incidence of wage theft, which took the form of getting paid below minimum wage, nonpayment or underpayment of overtime. Of those surveyed, 26% said they received wages below the legal minimum of $10.30 for small businesses.
  • While 33% said they were paid only at their ordinary rate for their overtime work, 5% said they were not paid at all for overtime.
  • Only 2% reported having received paid sick days from their employers.

‘I worked extra shifts for those who couldn’t’

When shutdowns began last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gloria Guerrero Romero of Edison kept going to work at a retail laundromat in her hometown because she was an essential worker.

But as days passed, and more people she knew became infected with the virus, she grew concerned for her safety. The long hours the job demanded put her more at risk for the virus. When she took a few weeks off to quarantine after she thought she had been exposed, she lost her job, she said.

“I felt terrible because I worked extra shifts for those who couldn’t make it because they got sick with the virus,’’ said Guerrero Romero, who was born in Mexico. “But when I wanted to return, they tell me I can’t. That was awful.”

Guerrero Romero is now a community organizer for Laundry Workers Center, teaching those who remain working in the laundromats to stand up for themselves and their rights.

“There are abuses everywhere,’’ said Guerrero Romero, who helped survey workers for the report. “There are so many people who are afraid to stand up and demand better working conditions.”

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