Gregorio “Goyo” Rodriguez works on the dirty side of the laundry plant, where he unloads bags of used hospital linens and feeds them into a giant washing machine.
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For 31 years, Rodriguez has worked at Hospital Cooperative Laundry, which cleans the sheets, gowns, towels and surgical rags for 40 hospitals and about 400 medical clinics along the Front Range.
Never has he worried more about the hazards of his job.
The cooperative laundry, owned by Colorado’s major hospital systems, was struck with a coronavirus outbreak in early May at its Denver plant. As the number of confirmed cases grew to 13, local public health authorities stepped in to request additional safety protocols, including regular wipe-downs of vending machines, pre- and post-shift temperature checks, and Xs taped to seats indicating where employees should sit in the breakroom at a safe social distance.
There is no evidence that the virus came into the facility via dirty hospital linens.
General manager Kurt Koenig said authorities were not able to determine how the outbreak started. It’s suspected that one or more workers contracted COVID-19 in the community and the virus was spread in the plant’s common areas — the 13 cases spanned two shifts and various areas of the laundry facility.
Denver public health officials declared the outbreak “resolved” this week after all 13 employees recovered and returned to work and no new cases of the virus have been detected among the cooperative’s 500 workers. No cases were reported at the cooperative’s second plant, in Pueblo.
Still, workers at the cooperative have twice asked — and been rejected — for hazard pay due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Their union, affiliated with Service Employees International Union, has worked throughout the pandemic to improve safety conditions for hospital laundry employees and is pushing for a $2-per-hour pay increase to compensate the essential workers during the coronavirus outbreak.
Negotiations are ongoing, according to union representatives and workers.
“We will continue the fight,” said Rodriguez, who spoke in Spanish through a translator, a union representative. Rodriguez and other workers began wearing masks and goggles because of the pandemic, and they are following stricter protocols for hand-washing.
“We do the work that is needed to provide clean equipment,” he said. “At the end of the day, the company should recognize our efforts.”
Cooperative officials, however, maintain that working conditions are not hazardous. “Our belief is that the coronavirus doesn’t pose a higher threat to employees” than any other safety factors that have always come with the job, Koenig said.
That position could change if the hospital systems that are members of the cooperative — including UCHealth, Children’s Hospital Colorado. HealthONE and Centura Health — institute hazard pay for their workers, Koenig said.
The laundry cooperative, which began in 1991 and opened a second site in Pueblo in 2003, follows strict rules from federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Koenig said.
Since the 1990s, employees have been offered vaccinations for hepatitis B, a virus that is transmitted by blood and other bodily fluids and can infect the liver. And even before the coronavirus pandemic, the cooperative and others like it across the country were required to treat every piece of linen as if it were contaminated.
The laundry cooperative cleans a massive amount of linens each day — 7,500 pounds every hour in Denver alone. To put that in perspective, a sheet weighs about one pound. That’s about 50 million pounds of clean linen per year, split between the Denver and Pueblo facilities.
Both facilities are divided into a “soiled laundry side” and a clean laundry side. Trucks unload dirty sheets, towels, rags, blankets and curtains used to divide patient rooms at the dirty side of the plant, where workers — including Rodriguez — open the bags of laundry and put them in giant washing machines. The washers are computer-operated, and automatically inject the cleaning solution.
On the other side of the plant, the machines spit out clean linens, and other workers place them in large, rolling laundry tubs. Those workers feed the items into various machines, including contraptions that iron and fold pillowcases and sheets.
One group of workers, which includes Lizeth Salazar and Marcia Heredia, creates surgical packs — with towels and gowns — that are delivered to clinics and hospitals. The two women said that even though they handle clean linens, they have been nervous since the beginning of the outbreak because they work in close quarters and with others who handle dirty linens.
“Some of my coworkers have tested positive,” Salazar said in Spanish, also through an interpreter. “Some of them have left work to be quarantined. But I’m still eager to do the work because it’s essential, … and I’m helping people who are sick get access to clean clothes and linens.”
In March, when coronavirus was first detected in Colorado, cooperative officials began researching the virus and attending online seminars about worker safety and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The business hired extra janitors and, in April, asked all workers to wear masks.
Experts have said it’s highly unlikely that any virus left on sheets or gowns from a COVID-19 patient would survive in a bag all the way to the laundry facility, Koenig said. “The coronavirus really doesn’t have any higher level of transmission possibility than any other linen that we handle,” he said. “By the time it gets to our facility, most likely that virus has died.”
The cooperative has provided coronavirus testing for workers with symptoms, and paid them for time off as they awaited those results, Koenig said. Several employees were found negative and cleared to return to work, he said.
Starting wage at the facilities is around minimum wage, which is $12 per hour in Colorado. While the workers have not received hazard pay, Koenig said he is grateful the cooperative has not had to make cutbacks during the economic shutdown caused by the virus.
“We haven’t had to furlough any of our employees,” he said. “We haven’t had to talk about wage reduction.”
Workers United representative Martin Salgado said the union remains optimistic that the cooperative will approve hazard pay. The facility’s employees are “doing critically important work that directly supports medical professionals on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19,” he said. “We’re proud of their dedication during this time of national crisis.”