For immediate release
February 3, 2007
Community, Clergy and Labor Demand Hospital Help Improve Conditions for Workers Who Wash Hospital Linens
Madison, WI: Protesters gathered today to demand that St Mary’s Hospital, “have a heart.” They are protesting the hospital’s contracting with Superior Health Linens, a company that pays poverty wages and which they say has disregarded workers’ health and safety. Superior’s Madison plant launders the hospital’s linens.
The “have a heart” message might be familiar to some Madison residents. Many received a postcard with those words asking them to help convince St. Mary’s Hospital president, Frank Byrne, to help Superior workers. The hospital is one of Superior’s single biggest customers. St Mary’s has refused to meet with Superior workers to discuss the hospital’s moral responsibility for improving their working conditions.
Ms Patiño, who is featured on the card, works at Superior’s second plant, in Cudahy. She sorted soiled linens and now works sorting soiled personal clothes. “We handle things that have blood, excrement, urine, vomit, everything.” Workers, she says, pick out needles, scalpels, and scissors from the dirty laundry. Doing “dangerous work,” she has been employed by Superior for over nine years, but rarely receives wage increases.
The company has done a poor job protecting workers from the hazards, say workers and supporters.
Ms Patiño’s husband, Vincente Martinez, also worked at the Cudahy plant last year for about nine months. His job involved lifting loads of soiled linens in his arms to load the large, industrial washer. The company is required to give workers like Martinez vaccinations to protect them from Hepatitis B. According to Patiño, “The company gave him the first one” in the series of three shots, but then did not properly complete the series.
Carlos Torres, who works at the Madison plant, has also “had enough.” The father of a 10-month old boy born at St. Mary’s Hospital, Torres has worked for the company for over 8 years. Like Patiño, Torres says that he rarely gets raises. The company, he says, has little respect for him and his co-workers.
He sorted soiled linens at Superior before starting to work with the dryers. But he says that it was only in May 2006, after the workers began to organize a union, that the company sent him for his Hepatitis B shots. According to Torres, he received his final vaccination this past December.
In January of last year, a needle punctured his finger when he was cleaning a lint filter from the dryer. Although a supervisor told him that he would have to “get checked by a doctor in 20 days,” as of April he had still not received any medical follow up.
Uninsured, concerned about Hepatitis and other diseases, Mr. Torres says that he then approached the company owner who told him that he didn’t need medical attention. “He told me that because the needle had gone through the washing machine, it was clean and they would treat it as a minor cut.”
Patiño, Torres, and their co-workers are organizing with UNITE HERE, the union that represents workers at other Madison laundries. The company has “responded with intimidation,” says Rosie Reml, President of UNITE HERE Local 229 in Madison. Reml is also a laundry worker at a unionized plant in Madison. According to workers, management told them that unionizing will lead to a “raid by immigration.”
“Latino workers are particularly vulnerable,” states Christine Neumann-Ortiz, of Voces de la Frontera. “Because of language barriers they often don’t know their rights. The Latino community needs customers, like St Mary’s, to hold Superior accountable to ensure that their workers are treated with dignity and respect.”
To date the hospital has refused to meet with Superior workers.
Salvador Carranza, President of LUCHA (Latinos United for Change and Advancement) notes that it is important for, “hospitals, like St. Mary’s Hospital, who have a social mission, to understand that when a company like Superior Health Linens abuses their workers the hospital has a responsibility to act. I encourage St. Mary’s to be true to their mission and take concrete steps to resolve this issue.”
Torres and Patiño hope that the rally and cards will help generate community support that will move the hospital to act. Patiño says, “maybe the hospital will help us if it sees that we are real people, with real children.”