The news that another District of Columbia laundry has gone out of business is usually announced by the loss of somebody's shirts.
There are the lost shirts of the hapless customer whose laundry happened to be laundered on the day the plug was pulled. And the shirt of the businessman whose laundry failed. And the shirt off the back of the laundry workers, who lose their shirts and their jobs to Woolite, Wash 'n Wear and washing machines in every apartment.
It happened that way last November, when Aristo Laundry went under and it will happen that way again, predict the handful of men who run what is left of the District Columbia's laundry industry.
Since 1969 there's been a 63 percent decline in employment in the laundries in the District, says Joseph Berkowitz, president of Linens of the Week.
Like a doughboy ticking off the ranks of fallen comrades, Berkowitz recalls the companies that used to be his competitors. Aristo went under Manhattan went bankrupt. Bugle Linen went back to Baltimore. Elite Linen Service, District Linen, Washington Linens, Dupont, Senate, Old Colony, they're all gone, says Berkowitz who counts 40 failures among local laundries since 1959.
Citing figures from the D.C. Unemployment Compensation Board, he says employment in the industry has shrunk from 5,900 workers in 1969 to 2,200 workers last fall.
That was before Aristo folded, and before the D.C. Minimum Wage and Industrial Safety Board raised the pay of laundry workers. The laundry owners contend a major reason their industry is unhealthy is because they have to pay higher wages than laundries outside the district.
The minimum wage for laundry workers in the District will go to $3 an hour as of April 15. It had been $2.40. In Virginia and Maryland the federal minimum wage prevails: now $2.65 an hour, it will go to $2.90 next January.
A 35 cents an hour difference in the minimum wage amounts to a 10 percent advantage in labor costs for companies outside the District, says Berkowitz. Since labor is better than 50 percent of the value of the service, that translates to about a 5 percent cost advantage in wages alone.
"We pay the highest minimum wages in the country right now," contends Don Gibbons, whose Yale Laundry is, he said, "the only straight wash job left in town." That means Yale washes other people's dirty linens, unlike Linens of the Week or Rentex, which own the sheets and uniforms and provide them as a service.
Diversification into fields like linen service, uniform rental, and drapery and carpet cleaning is one of the charactistics of the survivors in the laundry business. About 40 percent of the employment in District laundries is in just four shops - Linens of the Week and Yale, plus Sterling and Bergman's, the last two companies running laundry routes.
Except for such services, the laundry business is commodity operation, priced by the pound or the piece, with competitive bidding the rule for big jobs. The last time Doctors' Hospital took bids, Sterling Textile Services of Washington lost the contract to a Baltimore company, said Skip Jacobsen, the third generation family member who now runs the company. The deciding factor on that job, he contends, was the difference between the $2.65 minimum wage in the District and the $2.40 rate that prevailed in Baltimore.
Another cost factor - cited by both Berkowitz and Gibbons - is the higher workers' compensation insurance bill in the District. While Virginia laundries pay $1.10 per $100 of payroll, D.C. laundries pay $5.50. "the same rate as for tunnel workers carrying dynamite," said Gibbons.
Add in the District's higher unemployment compensation bills, and higher property tax and "damn near everything costs more in the District," said Jacobsen.
Were it not for the investment in his plant, Jacobsen would move out in a minute. "If we were able to physically pick this place up and haul it to Virginia" Sterling would save $60,000 a year, he said.
Yale is not picking up its chips in the District, but it has purchased a plant in Winchester, Va. that will be used to service its expanding suburban business, said Gibbons.
"There is no sensible reason to expand in the District." he said, predicting that other local laundries will go out of business or move to the suburbs when their plants need replacing.
"We would never expand physically in the District," agreed Bertkowitz, whose firm moved from Virginia into Washington in 1964. "Had we been able to project the business climate we would not have come to the District."
There is another side to the laundry minimum wage issue. The laundry workers' side.
The $3 an hour that laundry workers will get starting in April is 58 cents an hour less than they need for the minimum standard of living measured by the D.C. Minimum Wage Board.
With a 40-hour week, 52 weeks a year $3 an hour adds up to $6.240 a year. By one such standard, the poverty level in Washington is $6.200 a year for a single person living alone. More than a few of the laundry workers in Washington are women with children.
A survey of about 300 laundry workers found they spend an average of $24.56 a week on food and $30.34 a week on rent and utilities.
Yet despite near-poverty wages, turnover in the big laundry plants is low, the operators agree. People come looking for jobs often enough that there is no need to advertise, one laundry man admitted.
In a city with an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, these are jobs, but the number of them seems to decrease every time the pay inches upward.