Laundry workers allege bias, harassment by bosses

Local company denies claims made in complaints to state, U.S. agencies

Legal action

November 05, 1999|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Workers at a Baltimore industrial laundry accused the company's management yesterday of sexually harassing female employees and discriminating against black workers.

The company, Up-to-Date Laundry Inc., denied the charges, saying they were manufactured after union officials failed in their bid to organize the work force.

Wilma Neal, an organizer for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, said 34 workers and former workers signed a complaint against the company with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"We're here today to air the dirty linen of the Up-to-Date company," Neal said.

At the news conference called by UNITE, a worker said she was repeatedly harassed and inappropriately touched by an executive of Up-to-Date. Another said she was fired because of an affair with a top executive.

A third worker said blacks were paid $5.15 an hour while other workers received $6. He complained that blacks were typically assigned to work on laundry from hospitals, which contains feces, needles, body parts and contaminated bags.

The worker said blacks were systematically underpaid and given the most difficult, hazardous jobs, and that the company's president used racial epithets.

Brad Minetree, president of the Southwest Baltimore company, which has about 210 employees, said the complaints were connected to the union's failure in June to organize the company's work force.

"We won the election," Minetree said. "Now they're doing anything and everything they can to change it."

Joseph K. Pokempner, the company's lawyer, said, "There is no sexual harassment by any members of management and no racial discrimination by the company whatsoever. The company itself is a melting pot of races, immigrants and other nationalities. They provide good jobs for a lot of people."

Union officials said the complaints were not connected to the defeat in June. The union, which lost a vote aimed at organizing the work force, has filed separate charges with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Up-to-Date of violating workers' rights during the organizing drive. The union is seeking to block certification of that vote.

At the news conference, Shiomara Harera, a Guatemalan immigrant, said through a translator that a company executive told her he was hiring her because she was pretty.

Even though she told him she was married, she said, he repeatedly asked her out, offered to give her a massage and once grabbed her around the waist. After about two months, she quit.

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