By SHANT SHAHRIGIANNEW YORK DAILY NEWS |JAN 24, 2021
Employees of a huge commercial laundry company say they have faced lack of personal protective equipment, close-quarters conditions and allegedly callous management as they’ve cleaned linens for all of New York City’s publicly run hospitals and several big private ones.
At at least one of the company’s six sites in the metropolitan area, workers have even had to scrounge for used gloves that came in soiled laundry shipments from hospitals, employee Maritza Garcia told the Daily News
“It has been very difficult for all of us,” Garcia, 34, said through a translator. “There was a deep disrespect. We are essential workers and they have to get essential equipment for us.”
Around the start of the outbreak last March, her employer Unitex, which runs six facilities that ring the city, initially gave employees just one mask per day and no gloves, employees said. They then upped the PPE supplies to two masks per day, but gloves remain inconsistent, workers said.
Meanwhile, fears of catching COVID remain high among roughly 800 employees, many of them Latina immigrants, who also accused Unitex of failing to enforce social distancing.
“Since the pandemic started, we are in [a state of] panic. Even though we panic, we continue to work at all times,” said employee Reynaldo Hernandez, 46, adding that he’s usually 2 feet away from co-workers.AdvertisementSkip
Unitex declined to state how many workers have been infected during the outbreak.
But 10% of workers at the company’s Perth Amboy, N.J., facility have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the union representing the workers, which cited information it obtained from Unitex. That’s about twice the infection rate in the surrounding county, the union said.
“These are essential workers with families, with lives to protect, with health to protect, and by going to work everyday, they’re putting themselves at risk,” said Megan Chambers of the Laundry, Distribution, and Food Service Joint Board of Workers United/SEIU.
“They’re trying to protect themselves and their family members and that is the least they are owed by this company,” she added.
Unitex, which serves the New York-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai systems along with NYC Health + Hospitals, rejected all of the allegations from employees and the union as “false.”
“There is no basis for these claims,” Unitex CEO Robert Potack said in an email. “The union is simply using the press as a vehicle to pressure us to change our position” in contract negotiations.
The Laundry, Distribution, and Food Service Joint Board is calling for regular supplies of PPE and social distancing measures and for an HVAC expert to ensure adequate ventilation.
It also wants Unitex to inform employees when a worker tests positive.
Garcia believes she contracted coronavirus in late March, though that wasn’t confirmed at the time due to the scarcity of tests.
She said a company doctor recommended she take just two days off, after which she came back to work, even though experts recommend longer periods of isolation.
“When I came back, I didn’t feel good. I still had fever and I took some medication,” said Garcia, who added that she later tested positive for COVID antibodies and believes she got her husband sick.
Potack said Garcia’s account was “completely untrue.”
Last month, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and local electeds called on Unitex to ensure COVID safety measures. He also voiced support for a new contract — pay currently starts around minimum wage — employees’ calls for which led to a strike in November.
Now members of the New York City Council are seconding those calls.
“They are the most essential of essential workers. They are critical to the functioning of our hospital system and our medical system,” said Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), who organized a letter with other Council members to Unitex.
“They deserve a good contract so they’re not punished after this difficult year with anything less than a modest increase in wages, preservation of their pension and the basics they need to provide for their families,” added Levine, who chairs the Council’s Health Committee.
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Shant Shahrigian covers politics for the Daily News. He was previously an assistant city editor for the paper, and has also worked for outlets from the hyperlocal Riverdale Press to Germany’s international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.