News: More Hazard Warnings

Illinois Congressman wants Cintas 'to start acting responsibly'

Mar 17, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Carlos Banda

Workers and supporters held a protest rally Marxh 6 at a Cintas facility in Bedford Park, III.

One year after Eleazar Torres-Gomez was entrapped by a conveyor belt at a Cintas Corp. laundry in Oklahoma and was dragged into an industrial dryer where he burned to death, some workers at the company's other facilities nationwide say they still face potentially lethal safety hazards while they perform their jobs.

The situation is so dire that some Cintas employees in a Chicago suburb recently held a protest march at their facility seeking safer working conditions, and one filed an anonymous complaint with federal regulators requesting an on-site inspection of machinery there.

As a result, a congressman from Illinois is renewing his call that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conduct an investigation of all Cintas facilities across the nation. So far, the agency — headed by appointees of the Bush administration — has ignored the request. But with Congress now controlled by Democrats, some lawmakers are threatening other action to get the company's attention.

"I believe Congress has a moral obligation to step in on behalf of all Cintas workers — whether through hearings or new legislation — and compel this company to start acting responsibly," said U.S. Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, in an e-mailed statement.

By most measures, it hasn't been a good year for Mason-based Cintas.

In that time, the firm was hit with more than $3 million in new OSHA citations for violations at various facilities and faced a public relations nightmare after then-CEO Scott Farmer blamed Gomez for his own death by not following proper safety procedures and the company tried to prevent Gomez' family from collecting workers compensation benefits.

Also, workers at a Cintas facility in Boucherville, a Montreal suburb, became the first in the company's history to successfully form a union. The same group, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), is trying to organize workers at the firm's U.S. sites.

In early February, Cintas settled charges with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that alleged the firm illegally fired a California worker and that management threatened to "kick driver-employees with steel toed boots" to show it wasn't afraid of workers' organizing efforts. Cintas agreed to pay the fired worker nearly $30,000 in back wages and post a notice in its Vista, Calif., laundry describing workers' legal right to organize. As part of the settlement, Cintas didn't admit wrongdoing.

During the last three years, Cintas has settled more than 70 charges with the NLRB alleging illegal interference with employees' right to organize. And federal safety inspectors have cited Cintas at least five times for workplace hazards at different facilities since Gomez was killed at the company's Tulsa laundry in March 2007.

The OSHA complaint anonymously filed Feb. 25 about the facility in Bedford Park, a Chicago suburb, alleges that similarly hazardous conditions exist there. Workers are especially liable to be hurt because of the production quotas they're assigned, according to the letter.

"Despite an industry history of fatalities and serious injuries — some involving its own facilities — Cintas has failed to provide its employees with protection beyond the implementation of administrative controls and warning devices," the letter states. "As a result of the constant production pressures, and the inadequate training about lockout requirements for hazardous procedures, make it almost inevitable that these superficial controls will fail to fully protect the exposed employees."

Because so many workers at the Cintas facility in Bedford Park speak only Spanish, the letter writer requested that the compliance officers conducting the inspection be bilingual or that OSHA provide an interpreter for each officer during the inspection to get full information from workers.

Gregorio Delgado unloads dirty uniforms and places them into industrial washers at the Bedford Park laundry, a job similar to the one Gomez had at the Tulsa site. Delgado, a Mexican immigrant who's worked at the facility for eight years, says management is indifferent to employees' concerns.

"The job is hard work," Delgado told CityBeat through a translator. "The pressure to get the work out makes it very dangerous. The pay is not adequate for what we have to do."

Delgado, 55, earns less than $11 per hour at his job; he works 40 hours a week but is pressured to work overtime on a regular basis. He resists the overtures, he said, because he often has to fight to get the full amount of overtime pay when he does.

A Cintas spokesman didn't comment by deadline.

With more than 700,000 clients, Cintas is the largest uniform supplier in North America. 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.

As CityBeat previously reported (see "Dirty Laundry," issue of July 18, 2007), 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."

Overall, 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.

Hare believes the history of violations show a pattern that warrants more severe penalties.

"OSHA deserves credit for levying a historic citation against Cintas in the case of Mr. Torres-Gomez," the congressman says. "But a $2.8 million fine for a $3.8 billion company is merely a blip on the radar screen. But even as public skepticism grows and the fines pile up, Cintas has done only the bare minimum to protect its employees, continuing to view workplace safety upgrades as a threat to their bottom line." ©