This story appeared in The Mott Haven Herald May 19, 2014. See the article here.

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Photo credit: Joe Hirsch

Linen workers complain of inhumane conditions
Business that caters to the rich mistreats laborers, says union
By María Villaseñor

Employees at a Port Morris cleaning service that delivers sheets and towels to some of the city’s fanciest hotels say they are routinely underpaid and threatened while subjected to dangerous working conditions.

Workers at Carnegie Linen complain they are not granted paid time off while recovering from injuries suffered while cleaning, packing and delivering towels and sheets for luxury hotels like the Waldorf Astoria and the Ace.

In addition, workers say they are not paid overtime and are frequently transferred to different jobs in the factory, only later to find their pay has been cut.

To make matters worse, they say, Carnegie’s owner, Gary Perlson intimidates and threatens workers.

“A lot of us are scared of him because he acts like he’s crazy,” said one employee as she traveled to her afternoon shift. The woman asked not to be identified for this story, fearing reprisals by management.

Perlson did not respond to requests from The Herald for comment.

Current and former workers have made similar allegations about Carnegie and its two sister companies, Danielle Uniforms and Valet Services, all of which operate on East 139th St., an industrial area a block east of the Bruckner Expressway. The workers complain that the linen workers’ union, Local 1964, is ineffective.

“You would tell them something was happening, and then a day later [Perlson] would call you up to his office and yell at you about what you had said,” said the worker. “They don’t help us.” Many want to join a different union, Workers United.

Although the group does not officially represent the Carnegie Linen employees, the group says it advises many of the workers.

“The climate of fear persists there,” said Workers United organizer Megan Chambers. “We have been told by numerous workers that they are told they will be fired if they talk to us.”

Even the courts have failed to improve working conditions, Chambers said. In February, Perlson pleaded guilty to a 2009 misdemeanor charge for flinging coffee in the face of an employee who was leading a push for employees to join Workers United.

A coalition of unions has launched Clean NYC, a campaign to ensure linen and laundry workers who serve some of the city’s richest hotels are treated fairly. The posh hotels Carnegie serves should be more sensitive to the workers’ conditions, Chambers said.

“They have no business balancing their books on these workers’ back,” she said. “They don’t need to take from those who can least afford to give by letting these folks be exploited and then turning a blind eye to it.”

Most of Carnegie’s workers are paid slightly above minimum wage, along with meager health care and pension plans, regardless of how long they’ve worked there, she added. Retirement benefits are especially important, she said, because the work is physically demanding.

Mott Haven resident Edgar Gonzalez, 33, said he worked at Carnegie between 2006 and 2011, then was laid off when he submitted medical bills to the company for back problems he began to suffer on the job. Gonzalez urged his supervisors to load fewer towels and sheets, he said, to prevent his back problems from getting worse, but they did not heed his pleas. He contacted Workers United to inquire about organizing, but Perlson threatened him, he added.

Gonzalez now works odd jobs and does maintenance at a barbershop. His former co-workers assure him conditions have not improved at Carnegie Linen, he said.

“There are so many things going on in there, and no one feels like they can say anything,” Gonzalez added.