11 Secrets of Laundromat Workers
Fresh, clean clothes help us live our best lives—thanks to the 200,000 U.S. workers who keep local laundromats running. Although they deal with grueling shifts and sporadic tips, there are some perks to handling strangers’ intimates all day: Laundromats often double as meaningful community spaces, and the steady demand keeps business stable. Mental Floss interviewed three workers in the industry to learn about what the job is really like, from the things you probably do that make them wince to the most bizarre items customers have left in pockets.
1. THEY WISH YOU'D TIP.
Laundry workers earn an average of $23,770 a year nationwide to wash your mismatched socks. But Pilar Flores, a laundry worker in Queens, New York, says "not a lot of people tip." At the laundromat where she works, a mason jar of dollar bills sits strategically next to the cash register, even though it doesn't see much action.
However, Jessica Steier, a laundry owner and operator in California, says she noticed a bump in tips when card payment and apps became an option for transactions, instead of just cash. (Her business uses the app Rinse, which works like Seamless, but for clothes.) Thanks to this technology, customers have fewer excuses to skip the gratuity. “I feel like they feel a little guilty if they don’t,” Steier says.
2. THEY MIGHT HAVE TO DO 300 POUNDS OF LAUNDRY IN ONE MORNING.
“You’re constantly dealing with issues, jumping from task to task, on your feet for 8-hour shifts," Steier says. Flores, who works seven hours a day, seven days a week, says she has to wash between 250 and 300 pounds of laundry in the morning shift just to keep up with next-day demand. With such a tight turnaround, breaks aren’t common. “The only breaks we get is when it’s not crazy,” says Flores. “It’s always busy. I can’t even sit here for five minutes.”
3. THEY'VE FOUND SURGICAL EQUIPMENT IN PEOPLE'S POCKETS.
Careless customers can create a real headache for the people doing their laundry. “Sometimes, especially women, they’ll leave their lipstick and it will mess up all their laundry,” Flores says. Kids are culprits, too, she adds—they leave crayons in their pockets, which can melt in the high heat and stick to fabric, not to mention the machine.
And while staining is a big source of stress, sometimes there’s little the laundromat worker can do. “We try to rewash it, but if we see it doesn’t come out, it’s not in our hands, it’s not our responsibility,” Flores says. “It’s the customer’s responsibility.”
Laundromat workers also often find spare change—but it’s not theirs to keep. “I once found over $60 in a guy’s pockets, and he was absolutely astonished that we gave it back,” laundromat employee Mehunno shared on a Reddit AMA. Other discoveries may be bizarre: “We do laundry for a few doctors, so I’ve found surgical equipment before,” Mehunno writes. “Found a car’s registration, pocket knife, and this guy’s wedding ring three separate times.”
4. THE WORK CAN ENDANGER THEIR HEALTH.
Some surprises workers find in the laundry aren't just odd, but downright dangerous. "We have seen used preservatives, bloodied sanitary pads, dirty baby diapers and even vomit," laundry worker Daysi Raimundo from Astoria, Queens, told Voices of NY. Besides being gross, bodily fluids like blood can harbor bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella—especially problematic since many laundromat workers don't have health insurance, as Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran of the New York-based Laundry Workers Center told Voices of NY. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has detailed information about how to handle contaminated laundry, but many workers just do the best they can. Based on complaints received at the LWC offices, many laundry workers suffer from problems such as back pain, rashes, skin problems, and respiratory problems, caused in part by repeated exposure to cleaning chemicals.
5. ECONOMIC SLUMPS DON'T STRESS THEM OUT.
“In the recession, a lot of people tried to cut back on expenses,” Steier says. “But everyone has to have clean clothes. So it’s recession-proof. You gotta do your laundry.” In fact, the Coin Laundry Association has found that coin-operated laundries thrive in periods of both growth and recession. And as home ownership decreases nationwide, people depend more on outside laundry facilities, according to the association’s website.
According to Steier, California’s droughts have also helped bump up business: When water bills soar for homeowners, customers flock to laundromats instead.
6. THEY HAVE CRAZY WATER BILLS.
It's not unusual for laundromat water bills to average several thousand dollars a month, which can make it hard to keep costs down for consumers. (In 2013, one laundromat in Maryland said it would need to raise prices 565 percent to keep up with their $6000 water bill.)
Joon Sohn, who's run a coin-operated laundromat for a decade in Lakewood, New Jersey, says his water bill comes to around $2000 per month, which he says is forcing him to think about selling his business. Ideally, utilities should only amount to about 20-25% of the gross self-service income from a laundromat, experts say—but older machines and changes in local water prices can make it hard to hit that target.
7. THEY'RE SCRUPULOUS ABOUT CLEANING THE LINT TRAY.
“We clean out lint trays every day,” Steier says. “They can cause lint fires.” That's not just a concern at commercial laundromats, either: The National Fire Protection Association found that municipal fire departments responded to home fires involving clothes dryers and washing machines nearly 16,000 times a year between 2010-2014 [PDF]. Dust, fiber, or lint were the leading causes of these flare-ups.
Frequent cleaning of the lint tray can also help keep utility costs low. That's because dryers don’t work at maximum efficiency when lint trays are full, Steier explains.
8. THEY WINCE WHEN YOU ADD SOAP TOO EARLY.
Ever stared at the soap compartments atop a washing machine, wavering over when to add detergent? You’re not alone. “The thing is that most people put their soap in as soon as the water starts running down. But actually the soap should be thrown in in the second wash,” Flores says. Otherwise, you may have just wasted some soap—and some quarters.
The first wash—or prewash—really just soaks the clothes in preparation for the suds that occur when the second wash kicks in. So be patient, Flores tells folks who use self-service machines, and add detergent when the second wash starts, unless your clothes are really dirty. Chances are, they don't need that first wash, and most of your soap is going down the drain.
9. SOME LAUNDROMATS DOUBLE AS AN ART GALLERY—OR A LIBRARY.
In some areas, laundromats are a get-in-get-out situation. Others try to make customers comfortable with coffee, TVs, and vending machines. But some go above and beyond—Steier cultivates her laundromats as community spaces by offering free Wi-Fi, and at her Silver Lake location, adorning the walls with local artists’ artwork. The nonprofit Laundromat Library League even stocks books in laundromats located in underserved communities across the country.
“You know when you see people on their laptops after their laundry is completed, they are comfortable at the laundromat,” says Steier. “It becomes a meeting place to not just do your laundry, but a destination to be a part of the community.”
10. CUSTOMERS SOMETIMES CALL THE POLICE.
But not everyone is just hanging out at the laundromat drinking coffee. Sohn says that his customers not infrequently break the machines by adding too much soap (more than half of a ladle, as advised against in the hand-drawn signs on the walls). When the machines break down, customers have been known to call police to complain—in fact, it happens three or four times a year. The police generally side with Sohn. “If the machine has a problem, we put an out-of-order sign,” Sohn says. “I tell that customer: Don’t come again.”
11. DISH SOAP IS THEIR SECRET WEAPON.
As you might imagine, people who do laundry all day long become an expert on stains—and most of them say you don't need anything fancy to get yours out.
“Dish soap is far and away the best stain remover. It’ll take out anything protein based (blood, coffee, food, grass, etc.)," Mehunno advises on Reddit. “For ink stains, use rubbing alcohol.”
The Cyclone Laundry and Internet Café in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which offers a bevy of stain-busting tips online, says that alcohol stains can often be removed by blotting fabric with a mild detergent solution, or with a mixture of 1/3 cup of white vinegar and 2/3 cup of water. A mixture of boiling water and borax will take off many other stains, while shampoo is great for getting out makeup (sometimes spraying a makeup stain with hairspray will also do the trick).