Immigrant workers and their allies are cleaning up an industry rife with wage theft and abusive working conditions.
On March 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Beatrice Ramirez tried to make a face mask out of paper because her employer would not provide her with one.
“‘You’re strong, just keep working, buy your own, buy your own!’” Ramirez recalls her supervisor saying when she asked for masks and gloves to handle the loads of soiled laundry from nursing homes, restaurants and even hospitals that regularly piled up at New Giant Launder Center in Queens.
Beatrice Ramirez now enjoys a 30-minute break during her work day. She likes to take it outside.
Like Ramirez, many workers have had to choose between risking contracting COVID-19 at work and staying home and being unable to support their families. Such hardships reveal the extent of the unfair labor practices that have long plagued New York City’s laundry service industry. Yet, laws and programs that were launched in response to demands from workers and their allies to address enduring labor issues for immigrant workers have faltered, leaving many in a lurch.
“I think the pandemic brings the opportunity for people to see what is going on around us,” said Rosanna Rodriguez, co-executive director of the Laundry Workers Center (LWC), a New York City-based labor organization that organizes and supports laundry workers to self-advocate. “That brings the opportunity also to organize because many workers believed this is normal in this industry, and now they realize, this is not normal and they have to take action,” said Rodriguez in regards to the industry’s everyday working conditions.
Ramirez is one of the estimated 12,550 laundry service workers in New York State, many of whom continued to clean laundry in New York City through the bleakest months of the pandemic. According to a 2018 report published by the Laundry Workers Center, 79% of laundry workers are undocumented immigrants like Ms. Ramirez and were ineligible for pandemic-related unemployment benefits or federal COVID-19 stimulus payments. As the virus shut down businesses and buckled the economy, excluded immigrant laundry workers, who were classified as “essential service” workers by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, struggled to access resources. By April 2020, around-the-block food pantry lines were a common sight in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.
“Because they are immigrants, they are being excluded from any economic support from the government, even if they pay taxes, even if they contribute to this community,” said Mahoma Lopez, another co-executive director of the LWC. “Especially the laundromat workers,” he said. “They’ve been excluded from everything.”
New York City’s laundry service industry was already known for exploiting immigrant workers prior to the pandemic. According to the New York Joint Task Force on Worker Exploitation, laundry service is among the industries with the “highest rates of employer non-compliance.” The aforementioned 2018 report by the Laundry Workers Center found that one in five workers were paid $10 an hour or less, a violation of New York City’s $15 minimum wage.
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In the five years Ramirez worked at New Giant Laundry Center, she was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week without a lunch break, at times even spending 24 hours cleaning clothes at the behest of her boss.
The laundromat, which lacks air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter, is furnished with multiple cameras to monitor the workers. Ramirez said that her employers, James Changho Park and Grace Park, would berate and shout at the launderers if they were not working quickly enough or taking too long to eat their food.
Ramirez also said that her wages were withheld by her employer as she worked for $6.75 an hour, less than half of New York City’s minimum wage. She also never received extra pay for the 20 or more overtime hours she worked each week.
“They were exploiting us and paying us below the minimum wage and there’s a lot of workers who can’t do anything or won’t do anything [to defend themselves],” she said. “It’s abusive.”
When one of her coworkers fell ill with COVID-19, Ramirez was assigned to take over their station without the protection of disinfectant. That week, Ramirez began to experience symptoms of the virus before she rushed home, where she tried to isolate herself from her five daughters and her mother battling terminal cancer.
Exhausted, afraid for her family and unable to afford missing work, Ramirez laid in her bed and prayed the illness would go away. Later that week, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
With no sick pay and fearing the bills she would accrue by going to the hospital, Ramirez was among the workers who felt compelled to continue working even after she contracted the coronavirus.
Too sick to eat, Ramirez took Tylenol and drank black coffee or tea to make it through her shifts. While attending the self-service section of the laundromat, Ramirez would refuse to help clean or fold customers’ clothes, warning them to leave “as fast as possible.” Within the week, she felt too weak to continue working and had to lie down on the floor when her bosses who didn’t permit sitting weren’t looking. She said that she asked her bosses for permission to go home but they demanded that she finish the day’s work.
“‘If you don’t want to work for me, a lot of people are wanting to work and I’ll give the job to someone else,’” Ramirez recalls her boss telling her. Trembling from her fever, she went to the bathroom so she would not be seen by her bosses and called her husband to pick her up and take her home. She was fired later that same day.
“It’s normal, the way they reacted to it,” Ramirez said, “They don’t care about their workers.”
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The workers of the Wash Supply Laundromat in the Upper West Side, owned by Liox Cleaners, encountered similar difficulties working through the pandemic without COVID-19 protocols or government safety nets.
“All the workers there, we get sick,” said Maribel, a Wash Supply employee who asked for her last name to be withheld for privacy reasons.
Maribel said she and five others worked in a cramped basement without ventilation, heating, emergency exits, toilet paper or adequate PPE during the pandemic. Despite handling up to a thousand pieces of laundry a day and sometimes having to clean 80 to 100 pounds of laundry per hour, they were not provided with masks or gloves by their employer. He also did not enforce social distancing measures, nor did he administer regular temperature checks.
“Basically not only during the pandemic but before the pandemic, the situation was really, really bad and difficult,” said Sandra Mejia, a former employee of the Wash Supply laundromat. Mejia said that she earned $12 an hour at the laundromat with no paid overtime or sick days.
In November 2020, the Wash Supply workers hired a lawyer and sued Liox Cleaners, demanding better working conditions and the wages that they allege were withheld.
In response to the list of workplace violations being carried out at Wash Supply, the Laundry Workers Center organized a unionization effort in hopes that the workers would become a part of the Laundry Workers Association. Mejia said Liox responded by hiring a consultant to persuade the workers not to unionize. She said Liox management began intimidating the workers with threatening letters and more aggressively monitoring their work. Liox Cleaners did not respond when asked by The Indypendent to provide a comment for this report.
“With damages and penalties, the attorney calculates a model like $1.5 million,” said Lopez of the Laundry Workers Center about the allegedly stolen wages of the six Wash Supply workers.
In February 2021, after the launderers voted to unionize, Liox fired all of the workers, shut down its laundromats, removed its cleaning and drying equipment, declared bankruptcy and moved to an unknown location in Brooklyn under a new name. The workers believe the company did this to avoid paying the wages owed.
Lina Stillman, who represented both Beatrice Ramirez and the Wash Supply workers in their respective lawsuits against their employers, said the pandemic has caused an influx of allegations of wage theft and unsafe working conditions around New York City, further exposing problematic practices in the laundry industry.
The Wash Supply workers took to the streets to rally support after being fired. Working with labor organizations such as Workers Alliance Against Racism, local Teamsters unions and the Urban Justice Center, the Wash Supply workers held multiple protests outside the Liox office in the Lower East Side.
“We are in solidarity with the Wash Supply workers and will be here until they are rehired and receive the pay they were denied,” said a representative from the Professional Staff Congress, the City University of New York faculty union, at one of the solidarity rallies on February 27. “This is a part of a city wide and country wide struggle … where all workers are mobilizing in defense of their demands!”
During the unionization effort and its aftermath, the Department of Labor took notice of the LWC and contacted the group about the launderers’ working conditions. “So we started floating the idea of if they can certify U visas for the workers,” said Rodriguez, referring to a visa that immigrants who were victims of criminal activity can apply for. “The DOL interviewed all the workers, one- on-one conversations. And at the end, they realized that they were almost in slavery conditions over there and they decided to certify the U visas for the workers.” Now the LWC is looking for law- yers to represent the workers in the visa application process.
The Wash Supply workers await the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling on a September hearing regarding their lawsuit, which, if won, will force Liox to rehire the workers.
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In spring of this year, the public outcry of laundry workers — joined by other labor movements centered around undocumented workers such as the Street Vendors Project, Los Deliveristas Unidos and the Fund Excluded Workers coalition and their widely covered 23-day hunger strike — fueled a flurry of legislation to address immigrant labor struggles exacerbated by the pandemic.
On May 6, the NY HERO Act was passed by the New York State Senate and signed by Governor Cuomo. The act aims to “amend the labor law, in relation to preventing occupational exposure to an airborne infectious disease” and force compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols that were absent in many of the laundromats and other workplaces around the city.
The NY HERO Act stated that the disease exposure prevention plans that the act requires businesses to adopt “must go into effect when an airborne infectious disease is designated by the New York State Commissioner of Health as a highly contagious communicable disease that presents a serious risk of harm to the public health.” However, the state did not designate COVID-19 as a “highly contagious communicable disease” under Andrew Cuomo and the standards laid out by the act were not applicable until September 6, when Governor Kathy Hochul applied the designation to COVID-19, thereby including it under the NY HERO Act.
“We’re talking about mostly immigrant and Black workers who we’ve been calling heroes,” said Jake Streich-Kest, a campaign coordinator with Align, a labor rights group that played an instrumental role in the passage of the act. But for months, “instead of siding with workers and protecting them, the Department of Health seem[ed] content to side with employers and big corporations who obviously [didn’t] want to have to follow any safety standards.”
Efforts to get long overdue monetary aid to immigrant workers have also faced similar obstacles.
On April 6, New York State included a historic $2.1 billion Excluded Worker Fund (EWF) in the budget for fiscal year 2022, supplying payments to some undocumented New Yorkers who had been left out from previous rounds of aid. In August, the applications to receive owed relief opened. For some, the fund has been a blessing.
For others, the fund’s tiered system and requirement of documents proving unemployment have left them confused about their eligibility to receive payments. “I don’t have any idea if I qualify because I just started working and I started paying my taxes just recently,” Meijia said.
We’re talking about mostly immigrant and Black workers who’ve been called heroes … instead of siding with workers and protecting them, the DOH seemed content to side with employers and big corporations.
If an applicant doesn’t have a tax ID number, for example, they have to produce evidence that may be hard to come by, like proof of earnings or a letter from an employer clarifying their employment.
The most common obstacle workers face in accessing the EWF stems from employers who refuse to cooperate with the state in providing evidence they employ or employed undocumented workers. In cases like that of the Wash Supply workers, where relatons between worker and boss remain extremely contentious, getting a letter from the employer is all but impossible.
“Even if many of those laundromats closed or they reduced the hours for the workers and the workers are being affected for that, the employers refused to provide letters,” Lopez said.
As it stands now, those who haven’t yet applied are unlikely to receive funds, as are many who have already applied. More than 114,000 applications have been approved with more than $1.35 billion out of the $2.1 billion dollars already distributed or scheduled for distribution. On September 24, the Department of Labor announced that it cannot guarantee that funds will be available for any claims submitted after Sept. 24. By Oct. 5, 86,000 applications had been submitted after Sept. 24.
When fighting for the fund, the FEW coalition demanded $3.4 billion. “We’ve known since the beginning that this is not going to be enough. When we started the campaign, we made the calculation and we knew what we needed,” said Roseanna
Rodriguez of the LWC. “The fund is now running out and many, many people didn’t apply.” Rodriguez also told The Indy that many immigrants lost their documents in Hurricane Ida and no longer have proof of residency or identity. “The coalition is really thinking about pushing the governor to put more resources into the fund and reopen it,” she said. “We know it’s a big fight, but we are strong.”
For many workers, these pieces of legislation and the attention now being focused on the laundry industry have either come too late entirely or have disintegrated into lip service, and many of the dangers of being an undocumented worker, laid bare by the pandemic, remain.
“I never felt safe,” said Ramirez, who was rehired at New Giant after winning a suit against her employers. Despite having gained rights as a worker — Ramirez is being paid minimum wage, only works at the laundromat 40 hours a week and is able to take breaks during the workday and receive time off — the conditions of the physical workspace still worry her (see sidebar). “I didn’t feel safe then and I still don’t feel safe,” she says.
Interviews with Beatrice Ramirez, Sandra Mejia and Maribel were assisted by a Spanish translator.