Cover Story: Dirty Laundry

Uniform giant cintas under fire by unions, regulators and Congress

Jul 18, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

Dirty Laundry

Almost everyone who knew Eleazar Torres-Gomez described him as a hard-working, honest man.

Hoping for a better life for his wife and two sons, Gomez and his family legally emigrated from Mexico to the United States in 1987. First moving to Illinois before eventually settling in Oklahoma, Gomez held a series of blue-collar jobs where he put in long hours trying to make ends meet and provide an education for his children.

By the time Gomez began working in the laundry at the Cintas Corp. uniform-cleaning facility in Tulsa seven years ago, his family had grown by two more sons. Devoutly Catholic, the close-knit family attended weekly services at St. Francis Church.

The family's faith, however, was severely tested last winter.

While working his shift one morning in early March, Gomez was alone in an area where clothes are washed by an automated system. He became caught on a large, robotic conveyor belt that is used to transfer uniforms from washers to dryers.

Despite struggling to get free, he remained trapped and was dragged inside the dryer, where temperatures reach 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Gomez was found about 20 minutes later by another worker, but already was dead. He was 46 years old.

Cintas usually pays workers in Gomen's position about $9 per hour, or about $18,720 annually before taxes.

As Gomez's family tried to cope with their grief, pain grew into anger once Cintas executives issued a statement that blamed him for his own death. In a letter that Cintas CEO Scott Farmer sent to all employees, the company stated Gomez had failed to follow standard safety procedures. Had he done so, the letter continued, he would still be alive.

"Unfortunately, (Gomez) climbed on top of a moving conveyor to dislodge a jam, contrary to all safety training and procedures, and fell into a dryer," Farmer wrote. "I'm grief-stricken at the loss of a fellow partner and deeply saddened for his family and for his fellow partners in the facility. It hurts us all."

Farmer's letter urged Cintas workers to give their "continued attention to following established training and procedures for safe operations."

Because of the circumstances surrounding Gomez's death, Cintas has moved to block his family's claim to workers compensation benefits.

"We have already been robbed of our father, and now Cintas denies us the money we need to live," says Emmanuel Torres, 23, Gomez's oldest son, who works at a Tulsa restaurant. "I am helping to support my entire family, but the money I make is not enough."

'Most dangerous'
Regardless of the circumstances, Cintas could've easily prevented the death, according to many workplace safety investigators, labor union organizers and some members of Congress.

Two years earlier the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Cintas for not installing guardrails and other protective equipment at its Central Islip, N.Y., laundry. The equipment that was unguarded in that case is similar to equipment involved in the Tulsa incident.

"If the company had added the guards, which it knew was required by OSHA, my father would be alive today," Torres says.

Tragically, the Oklahoma and New York incidents aren't isolated.

Records show that Cintas has been cited for more than 170 OSHA violations in its facilities nationwide since 2003. Of that number, more than 70 citations were violations that OSHA determined could cause "death or serious physical harm."

In fact, Cintas has paid nearly $200,000 in initial penalties, including more than $30,000 in penalties for "repeated" violations of the same identical standards in multiple company locations.

Overall, OSHA inspectors have found multiple hazards or violations in 31 of the 42 inspections that they have conducted in that period — for an astonishing 75 percent rate of failure.

Last year the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health listed Cintas as one of "America's 12 most dangerous employers."

Cintas' safety record is getting congressional attention. The House Committee on Education and Labor is pushing OSHA to conduct a sweeping nationwide workplace safety investigation of Cintas. Meanwhile, OSHA's inquiry into Gomez's death is underway and should be completed by late summer or early fall.

U.S. Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), a committee member, believes Cintas is trying to obscure its own abysmal safety record by blaming workers.

"This cynical attempt to deflect attention away from its repeated workplace safety violations is nothing short of disgraceful," he says. "Even if an employee was to misinterpret a safety policy, which there is no evidence Mr. Gomez did, the end result should not be death."

Funding the GOP
Locally, Cintas usually is lauded as a hometown model of success, an area Fortune 500 company that has prospered to become an industry leader despite tough economic times.

Based in Mason, Cintas is the largest uniform supplier in North America. The company has more than 700,000 clients; its red, white and blue delivery trucks are an ubiquitous presence on the nation's highways, and the company claims more than 5 million people wear Cintas clothing every day.

Among its largest clients are Delta Air Lines, DHL Express, Eli Lilly and NASCAR.

The company operates more than 380 facilities in the United States and Canada, including 15 manufacturing plants and seven distribution centers that employ more than 30,000 people — whom the company refers to as "partners," not workers.

Founded in 1929 by Richard "Doc" Farmer as the Acme Industrial Laundry Co., a humble rag-cleaning business for local factories, the company entered the uniform rental business in 1965 and saw its fortunes flourish. Today headed by the founder's grandson, Richard T. Farmer, Cintas has posted 37 consecutive years of growth in both sales and earnings.

Besides designing, manufacturing and cleaning uniforms for its corporate clients, Cintas also provides entrance mats, restroom supplies, promotional products, first aid and safety products, fire protection services and document management services.

The strategy has paid off handsomely.

In 2006, Cintas reported sales of $3.4 billion, an 11 percent increase from its previous year's revenue of $3.07 billion. Also, the company had $327.2 million in net income, an almost 9 percent jump from the previous year.

Ironically, just one day after Gomez's death, Cintas issued a press release touting its No. 1 ranking in the Diversified Outsourcing Industry sector on Fortune magazine's 2007 list of "America's Most Admired Companies." The list is chosen by executives, directors and analysts within the industry.

Although he retired from overseeing daily operations in 2003, Richard T. Farmer remains chair of the Cintas board. At age 72, he routinely ranks among Forbes magazine's list of wealthiest Americans. In 2005, he was listed as the 235th richest U.S. citizen, with a net worth of $1.5 billion.

Farmer long ago passed local entrepreneur and United Dairy Farmers founder Carl Lindner Jr. as Greater Cincinnati's wealthiest businessman. Like Lindner, Farmer gives much of his cash to conservative causes and candidates.

Farmer has given about $1.9 million in political contributions during the past decade, according to, the Web site operated by the Center for Responsive Politics. Recipients include President George W. Bush, Congressmen Steve Chabot (R-Westwood), U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman (a former congressman from Terrace Park), Sen. George Voinovich (R-Cleveland), former Sen. Mike DeWine and the Republican National Committee.

Farmer was the 15th largest fund-raiser for Bush's 2000 election and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the national Republican Party.

To be sure, Farmer has shared his Cintas wealth with Greater Cincinnati: He endowed the business school at his alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, and gave $30 million to construct a new building there, slated to open in 2009. Cintas purchased the naming rights to the sports arena that opened at Xavier University in 2000.

Keeping secrets
But Cintas has its share of troubles.

Several clients — large and small — have complained of deceptive sales practices in recent years. They include the U.S. Postal Service's Inspector General, which is investigating whether Cintas improperly added millions of dollars in fees onto its 10-year, $200 million contract with the Postal Service, according to Forbes.

Cintas doesn't like for its dirty laundry to be aired publicly. The company sued Tim Smith, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and an advocate for the socially responsive investment movement, alleging "defamation of corporate character" for statements Smith made at the Cintas annual meeting in late 2003 about alleged sweatshop labor abuses. Although the case was settled with no monetary damages, observers say it was designed to chill potential criticism of the company.

Additionally, Cintas is the subject of a worker discrimination lawsuit that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently joined and also is the defendant in a national overtime lawsuit for allegedly failing to pay overtime costs to its drivers.

Issues of worker safety and pay are driving an effort to unionize employees at Cintas facilities. Begun in earnest in 2003, the effort is coordinated by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). It has about 450,000 active members.

Some companies that were bought by Cintas over the years already were unionized, and they account for about 400 of the firm's 30,000 employees. But the vast majority — like workers at the Oklahoma, New York and other locations where OSHA violations have occurred — have no representation, according to Matt Painter, a UNITE organizer.

"Cintas workers all over the company are looking for justice," he says. "What we've seen Cintas do pretty systematically is do everything they can to discourage it."

Earlier this year the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with union organizers and struck down a rule in Cintas' employee handbook that, it said, violated federal labor laws by illegally impeding workers' ability to organize.

The rule, found in a section entitled, "Cintas Culture," outlined how workers were supposed to handle confidential information. It stated: "We honor confidentiality. We recognize and protect the confidentiality of any information concerning the company and its business plans, partners, new business efforts, customers and accounting and financial matters."

Also, in another section entitled, "Discipline Policy," the handbook stated that workers could be sanctioned for "violating a confidence or (for the) unauthorized release of confidential information."

UNITE says Cintas was using the rules to prohibit workers from discussing their wages and working conditions with one another — which is illegal.

Cintas has systematically tried to bust unions through de-certification campaigns at unionized locations, UNITE adds. The company has tried to push de-certification at more than 40 locations since 1990.

UNITE recently was joined in its campaign by the Teamsters, which has about 1.4 million members.

"We're dedicated to fighting for justice for all workers at Cintas," says Jim Hoffa, Teamsters Union general president. "Those who are currently Teamster drivers at Cintas are helping their non-union brothers and sisters fight for fairness in this company that has little respect for worker rights or the law."

Steel-toed kick
This spring the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against a Cintas facility in Vista, Calif., alleging the company impeded unionization efforts by threatening to close the facility, threatening to rescind some benefits, ordering workers to sign an anti-union petition and firing one worker — Evangelina Orozco — because of her union activism.

The complaint alleges management told workers that one supervisor would "kick (workers) with steel-toed boots" to show he wasn't afraid of union organizing efforts.

Cintas sharply denies the union-busting allegations. The company says UNITE hasn't had more success in its efforts because most workers don't want a union in their workplace.

"Largely, we're a company where most of the partners have elected or chosen not to be part of a union," says Wade Gates, a Cintas spokesman.

Because workers are given a stake in the company the longer they are employed, many consider themselves as part of a team with management, he says.

"We're all shareholders in the company," Gates says.

Under Cintas' benefits program, workers begin receiving shares in the publicly traded company upon their first anniversary, Gates says. They continue to get shares as time goes by or for meeting certain goals.

"They see that they like that relationship better than one of union versus management," he says.

Cintas criticizes the union organizing effort, stating it's a "top-down" effort pushed by UNITE's national office rather than a "bottom-up," grassroots effort.

"This is not something that's being driven by the partners," Gates says. "It was sought by the union to increase their density in the (garment) industry."

The company treats its workers generously, he adds. Among its benefits, Cintas offers matching 401(k) contributions, profit-sharing options and 12 different health insurance programs, the cheapest costing just $1 a day.

"We're a company with deep family roots, and we've maintained that culture as we've grown," Gates says.

Moreover, Cintas states that research shows 88 percent of workplace injuries are the result of unsafe actions by individuals, rather than unsafe workplace conditions. As a result, it argues, safety education for employees is the most effective means to improve workplace safety.

Despite widespread criticism, Cintas stands by its safety record, which it describes as better than the industry average.

"Our safety record is 20 percent to 30 percent better than the industry average," Gates says. "We watch that very closely."

Cintas compares favorably to union shops, he says.

"There are certainly more unionized operations out there," Gates says. "We think our performance speaks for itself."

But statistics don't bear out the company's claims, according to UNITE.

"We've seen no verification of that," Painter says. "I have no idea where they get their numbers from."

Thumbing its nose
Congressman Hare, who once worked at a unionized laundry facility, scoffs at Cintas' statement. He represented men and women as a union president in one such factory for 13 years.

"We never had anyone lose their life in that time," Hare says. "They're trying to get away from the real issues here."

Hare believes current OSHA fines are inadequate and Cintas should face harsher penalties to force improvements at its facilities.

"From my perspective, Cintas finds it easier to pay the fines and ignore the law," Hare says. "This is a company that feels they can thumb their nose at health and safety laws. ... They need to fix these conveyors and install these guards at any and all plants that need it. Those conveyor belts ought not be installed until those guards are installed."

With Cintas reporting more than $300 million in net income last year, the cost for installing the necessary safety equipment wouldn't put much of a dent in the company's bottom line, he says. Even if it did, though, it's equipment that's needed.

"What price do they put on the man who was dragged into the 300-degree dryer and killed?" Hare says. "This company has the money to install this equipment and, if it didn't, it needs to borrow it. It's a moral issue." ©