In a low-margin laundry business, workers are making more than minimum wage


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The industrial laundry down by the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville has all the makings of a modern-day sweat shop.

Immigrant workers with little command of English stand next to hot ironing machines hooking linens and sheets to robotic arms that feed the laundry through rolling pressers. As the materials come out the other side, more workers package a seemingly endless flow of laundry to send back to the customers.

The work is hot and mind-numbing, but the employees in the CleanCare plant have what many low-skilled workers are protesting for in Pittsburgh and across the nation. They earn $9 to $12 an hour, have vacation time, company-paid health and dental insurance and a pension.

In contrast to the ongoing battle for higher wages, the laundry plant in Lawrenceville is paying more than the industry average. Another laundry company, Atlas Health Care Linen Services, operates a plant in Uptown that also has a unionized workforce and comparable pay to CleanCare.

Both companies are facing stiff competition from nonunionized companies that pay workers less and truck hospital laundry in and out of the region.

The laundry workers at CleanCare -- who process 50,000 pounds of linens and uniforms every day for restaurants, hotels, hospitals and doctors' offices -- are members of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. The highest-paid workers earn enough money to be just over the poverty level for a family of four.

Virginia Ambroselli, who was born in Italy and now lives in Penn Hills, has been a worker at the company for 34 years, and her seniority has earned her five weeks vacation annually.

She has worked in other parts of the laundry, but now her job is repairing and sewing tags into uniforms. She likes the job, in part, because her language skills -- her command of English has greatly improved over the years -- never hindered her.

"We all have the same goal, which is to keep the company growing and our customers happy and everyone employed," said Linda Burgman, company vice president. "What we do is not glamorous. It's hard work."

Every night, dirty laundry comes in on trucks from as far away as Cleveland, Erie and Somerset. The company's North Side plant handles hospital laundry, while the Lawrenceville facility next to the company offices, handles the rest.

Ten men sort the dirty laundry for eight hours a day, separating by item and color. Then it is moved by conveyor belt or pneumatic tubes and automatically counted.

Each bag, which can hold about 250 pounds of laundry, hangs from a track that is suspended from the ceiling. Dirty linens drop into the fully automatic washing machine, moving loads of red napkins or white bar rags through 17 chambers and finally into a spinner that wrings them out at 1,000 revolutions per minute.

The process is further automated through the dryers, which load the clean laundry into a different set of bags hanging from a different set of tracks.

Those tracks take the laundry, suspended 20 feet in the air, into the area where it is dropped into bins to be ironed, folded and packaged to be sent back to customers.

The work is hot and repetitive. Workers have to keep moving, and a computer keeps track of productivity.

Dominic Galassi, the plant manager, has worked in union and nonunion plants. He prefers the union plant, with its definite set of work rules.

In a nonunion plant, he said, "You get yourself in trouble sometimes because you don't have a rule book to follow."

Anita Gajmer, 22, lives in Beechview with her parents and two brothers. She came to the U.S. in 2009 and is a shop steward at the plant because her English is better than other Nepalese who work with her. Her pay helps support her family. Her father also works. Her mother is home, and her two brothers are in school.

She took the job as a shop steward, she said, because "everybody told me to."

If she stays at the company for two more years, she will have the five years needed to be vested in the pension, which will continue to grow as longs as she works there.

It's a benefit many union workers have lost. Some employers are eager to be rid of pension obligations that they will go to the mat to end the benefit.

On Neville Island, for instance, workers are still off the job in a monthlong labor standoff that started when Neville Chemical unilaterally ended its pension contributions to switch to a 401(k) retirement savings plan.

At CleanCare, the company added the pension to the benefits package in negotiations with the union six years ago. The health insurance is completely paid for by the company with workers only paying co-payments for doctor's visits.

No one remembers a time when the union wasn't in CleanCare, which has been in business for 80 years.

"I think it's really nice that you can share a common sense of just trying to create good jobs for people and keep the business viable at the same time," said Sam Williamson, the staff director for SEIU 32BJ.

businessnews

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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