Checking the Sheets

In a world of rumpled towels, disabled workers can clean up.

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Candy knows how downtown is doing. So do Michael and Elizabeth. When they clock in to work at the beginning of the week, if the carts are overflowing and the washers are rumbling and the air smells of soap, they know that Cincinnati has been full of visitors all weekend, people who came to gamble or catch a game, see a concert or visit the zoo, cry at a wedding, confer with colleagues, or chow down in one of the city’s many new restaurants.

Chances are, some of these visitors also smeared Maybelline on the city’s pillowcases and buffed their Bruno Maglis with bathmats, leaving a trail of dirty hotel linens in their wake to serve as one small sign of the health of the local economy. And since pillowcases and bathmats are an area of expertise for Candy, Michael, and Elizabeth, they experience these leading economic indicators firsthand each Monday morning. The three work at the Point Commercial Laundry, a low-slung building in Dayton, Kentucky, just a couple of blocks off the main drag, where four of the city’s major hotels and one of the region’s casinos get their washing done.

It’s a big operation, with washers the size of jet engines and ironing machines that can press a 200-thread-count California King faster than you can say “room service.” Last year, according to plant manager Fred Wilhelm, employees at the Point sorted, washed, dried, and folded nearly 6 million pounds of sheets, towels, bathrobes, drapes, tablecloths, and napkins. “That’s a lot of dirty laundry,” Wilhelm deadpans. He was able to post those numbers thanks in part to the fact that in 2012 the laundry—which is housed in the sprawling building that Dayton natives may remember as Dave & Deb’s Skating Rink—completed a 7,000-square-foot addition. An addition that “was too small virtually the day the expansion was completed,” he adds.

That’s a happy development, of course, and there are a couple ways that Wilhelm could take advantage of the bonanza in dirty linen. He could add more machines or put on another shift, push employees for great efficiency or automate their jobs into oblivion. Wilhelm is 54, and he spent three decades in the hospitality industry, dating way back to the days when the Drawbridge Inn was the region’s hot spot. But before that, he taught in a vocational education program and worked with special needs students. So when he puzzles over how to meet demand and grow the business, the bottom line he’s eyeing is not just fiscal. His calculus takes into account what’s best for Candy, Michael, Elizabeth, and their colleagues. Because even though they’re working for the Point, the Point has to work for them, too.

 

The Point Laundry is a nonprofit operation, part of The Point/Arc of Northern Kentucky. The advocacy group was formed in 1972 to serve people with special needs in an era when support resources were few and limited. It was a time when most children who were developmentally delayed didn’t go to school with children who weren’t, and the idea that such a child might grow up to be an adult with a job that paid a decent wage, that she might one day shop for herself, or cook her own meals, or live with some modicum of independence, would have seemed pretty far-fetched. It was, says Judi Gerding, “a culturally different time.”

Gerding is the president of The Point/Arc and was one of the parents who helped start it. Her experiences with her son Steve, born intellectually challenged because of Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome, drove her. She could see that there were a lot of parents in the same boat she was: they wanted to figure out how to advocate for their kids’ interests, and as their kids moved into adulthood, they wanted to see them with friends, activities, and responsibilities—to have, as she says, “a life that’s the fullest it can be.”

The organization is located in Covington near the V-shaped intersection of Pike and Washington Streets, the “point” that forms the nonprofit’s eponymous landmark. On the day I visited Gerding’s office, it was filled with the remnants of a fund-raiser called Purses with a Purpose—one of the half dozen or so raffles, dinners, golf outings, and other events that generate funds for the organization. The Point/Arc of Northern Kentucky now operates eight group homes (and recently purchased a ninth) that serve 36 adults. But it aids a lot more developmentally disabled people than that. There are softball teams and bowling leagues, outings, and dances. Most significantly, it offers job training and social coaching to help special needs teens and adults do the things the rest of us take for granted.

Employment is an important part of The Point’s mission. If you’ve lived in the area for a while, you may recall the small Covington café run by the nonprofit. It was a training program for The Point’s clients, a place where they could learn basic job skills—showing up on time, mastering a task, and executing it under supervision. As time went on, Gerding noticed that a number of people who had been trained there were finding work in commercial laundries. And it seemed like a laundry might be a place where clients could be employed and a business that would generate funds for the nonprofit’s programs.

Fred Wilhelm, hired as the plant manager, focused the laundry’s efforts on hotel linens. The Netherland Hilton began sending linens there 17 years ago, followed by Hollywood Casino, the Hyatt Regency, the Millennium Hotel, and—most recently—hip newcomer 21c, with its chic sateen sheets and ultra-plush spa towels. Plus, any day can bring extra truckloads. Some downtown hotels still do their wash in-house, and when those machines break down, “We do emergency laundry for just about everybody,” Gerding says.

The Point lands work through competitive bidding. It’s not the kind of doing-good-works operation a hotel would utilize out of compassion: It’s a business with its own set of performance issues. The Point scored one of its contracts when a hotel discovered its current vendor was losing upwards of $30,000 in sheets and towels a year. “Nobody contracts with us because of who we are,” Gerding says.

And the income is significant: the laundry billed $2.1 million last year, and netted more than $300,000. The earned income subsidizes costly programs—in particular, the agency’s group homes. If The Point were able to iron out inefficiencies, wouldn’t that lead to more income for its programs? The laundry might, for example, switch to automated folding equipment, which could make the operation less hands-on and more profitable. But Point Laundry was designed to be labor-intensive, Gerding says, to ensure that there would be jobs for people like Candy and Michael and Elizabeth. So towel-folding machines are not on the company’s wish list.

“People first,” says Gerding. “Money second.” 

 

Elizabeth has a sunburn. The cheery twentysomething announces this to Fred Wilhelm when we stop by the laundry’s folding table. “I need to get some sunscreen,” she concludes.

Wilhelm introduces us and agrees that sunscreen would be a good idea. He explains to me that Elizabeth used to work three days a week. But she recently switched to a four-day schedule, and yesterday the extra income showed up in her pay for the first time. “My mother saw it in my check,” Elizabeth says. Then, with a eureka-like realization: “I could use it to buy sunscreen!”

The folding table is where many of the laundry’s workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities are employed. The washroom is a bit more complicated, and the big commercial ironers that can move through sheets at something like 100 feet a minute—those require a deft hand. But at the folding table, everyone knows the drill: Fold items according to each hotel’s specifications, lapping the Hilton’s snowy bath towels into thirds and smoothing the Millennium’s hand towels into piles of 10.

Michael is moving fast, his completed work forming a wobbly terrycloth tower on the table. When Wilhelm points out that the stack is getting pretty high, Michael hoists the precarious load, steadies it with his chin cartoon-waiter-with-plates-style, and takes it to a waiting cart, where there’s more evidence of his energetic but somewhat haphazard efforts. Wilhelm joins Michael at the cart, supervises the tidying-up, reminding the young man how things should be done.

Michael has Down syndrome. He came to the laundry a few years ago when he was in high school for a vocational assessment. He got his vocational training and now works at The Point three days a week. Wilhelm would be happy to give him more hours—he’s a good worker; today’s carelessness is not typical—but Michael also has a part-time job at a gym. And here’s the thing: he doesn’t want to give that up. Michael has friends in both places; he looks forward to being at both places. And in Michael’s world, that’s money in the bank.

Wilhelm knows this about Michael. He also knows that Candy—who arrived here 15 years ago clumsy, slow, and virtually silent—now zips through assignments, moving non-stop and chattering like a jay. He knows that his employee with Asperger’s syndrome (“He’s a folding machine!” Wilhelm says) doesn’t grasp the difference between unfiltered curiosity and sexual harassment, so he needs to be reminded not to badger the female workers with personal questions. Wilhelm can tell when someone is ready to handle a full-time job in the community, or if they need more coaching about emotional control or personal hygiene. “I expect them to be on time and productive,” he says. But, he adds, “when you’re a manager, you’re a social worker.”

“I need sunscreen,” Elizabeth reiterates as Wilhelm prepares to move on. “I might buy some sunscreen tonight.”

 

All Wilhelm’s disabled employees start at minimum wage but are eligible for raises. In an ideal world, they’d all be able to move along—taking on more challenging tasks or advancing into jobs out in the community. But the Point’s clients’ world is less than ideal, career-ladder-wise. When Judi Gerding ran the restaurant, for example, she only had one client who was able to work the cash register; the six or eight months of training proved to be too little time for most to master that skill, but keeping them in training longer would limit the number of people who could go through the program.

Last year the organization began another business—a company that screen prints and embroiders corporate logos on garments and promotional items. Several developmentally disabled people work there now, and it’s an operation that has the potential to grow and employ many more. “Our people can clean screens, package T-shirts, fill in [decorative] patterns with rhinestones,” Gerding says. Of course, there are commercial machines that can apply rhinestones. But you won’t see Gerding getting them: Bedazzling “is a great job for our people,” she says. 

While Gerding scouts new customers for the logo service, Wilhelm scurries to keep up with his current ones. It’s a warm summer morning when we’re meeting, and he’s surveying the visitor forecast that hotels send him each week. There’s a women’s event beginning in a few days that has 1,100 registered participants, and he knows what that means. Makeup stains, for one thing.

“With a group like that,” he says, “eleven hundred really means 1,500. They’ll be sleeping four to a room, and going through towels like crazy.” Come Monday, “it’s going to be busy.”

When business slows in the winter, that’s when he’ll have the time to add more developmentally disabled people to his expanded operations. “To refocus on why we’re here,” he says. His goal this year is to have a third of the workforce be staffed with folks who are developmentally disabled—16 to 18 out of a staff of 50 or so. And as soon as that’s done, he’ll turn his attention back to marketing the laundry’s services, building the business even further.

It’s a common cycle for a growing operation: market your services; then add staff and train them to handle the work; then market your services some more. It’s just a bit more complex for Wilhelm; when he on-boards staff, that may mean showing someone the difference between a re-wash and a stain—showing them not once but every day for weeks.

But then, that’s the business model at The Point: to make it possible for people who have been dealt a less-than-ideal hand by a genetic twist of fate to work alongside the rest of us, earning a wage. And do it while running a competitive business whose customers may never be aware that Michael and Candy and Elizabeth are the reason it exists. Because when Wilhelm is pitching laundry services to a new customer, he doesn’t lead with that fact. “I’ve never used that as a primary selling point,” he says. “But it’s a good closer.”

 

Originally published in the November 2013 issue.

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