A Month in the Life of Linens: Lee’s Launderings

by / Behind the Vest (0) in Features /
Lee coordinates washing, drying and folding hundreds of pounds of laundry daily (Campus/Paul Gerard).

Cindy Lee wakes up at 3:15 a.m. five days a week and drives 45 minutes to work at the laundry room in Freeman International Center (FIC). She starts off her day with emails and bookwork. Around 9:30 a.m. the truck arrives full with bags of dirty laundry from the three dining halls and any other catered events on campus. The bags can weigh 75 pounds, so it takes two people to lift each one off the truck. The staff then refills the truck with the previous day’s laundry and throws the first loads of towels in the washers as quickly as possible. It then takes the staff 45 minutes to an hour to sort through the rest of the laundry, checking all the uniform pockets to make sure nothing unusual gets tossed in the wash.

A typical day includes six to eight washer-loads, each of which is divided into two to three dryer loads and then put through the press and folded. Lee skips lunch so she can get off work at 1:30, in time to pick up her two sons from elementary school.

“It can be a very monotonous job,” Lee said. “Especially when you’re standing at a press for five to six hours, just putting flat sheets in — white flat sheets — or table linen, or napkins that just take forever.”

But then every day brings also its surprises; depending what the truck brings in the morning, the staff might be overloaded with dirty laundry, or face an easier day ahead with time for straightening up the storage or someone from a department outside of Dining Services could call in last minute with an order for linens. It is nearly impossible for Lee to plan a day ahead of time.

“I don’t think there’s ever a day that’s the same,” she said. The constant changes can be stressful, but Lee appreciates these constant shifts. “When the unexpected happens, it kind of breaks up the routine,” she said; she enjoys being taken out of the monotonous rhythm and forced to problem-solve.

Up until 2003, Middlebury College Dining Services rented all their uniforms, aprons, towels and linens through Foley Services Inc., who picked up dirty laundry at the end of the day and brought back a clean batch in the morning. In 2003, the College decided to begin buying their own uniforms and linens, and Lee, who was then 35, applied and was hired to help out serving in Ross Dining Hall and washing the laundry onsite.

The laundry service was a very new program, Lee said, and the College did not totally understand what it would involve when they started. Though they hired Lee to work both in the dining hall and in the laundry room, she rarely work in the dining hall.  She had her work cut out for her washing all the aprons, uniforms and linens for Ross using one washer and dryer and a “little tiny press” in a storage closet inside the student laundry room in LaForce.

Within a year, Lee worked with Dining Services to turn over all three dining halls to the College’s newly bought uniforms and linens, moving one building at a time. She worked at first completely by herself, with some help from the dining hall staff during the busiest stretches of graduation, reunion, and commencement. Lee hired a part-time helper for a few years who eventually became full time, and added another part-timer as the program continued to expand.

Five years ago, the job became a lot bigger as Lee was given the added responsibility of washing all the bed linens, towels, and bath mats for the summer language schools and Bread Loaf School of English. With that responsibility came a move to FIC, where she would have the use of a large (approximately ten-foot long) press that pre-folds larger linens part-way, as well as three washers and four dryers, including “Betsy 1” and “Betsy 2,” the original washer and dryer from the storage-closet days in Ross. Lee now supervises a staff of four, and a much larger staff in the summers, including high school and college students, to deal with the heavy load from Commencement and Reunion through the language schools and Bread Loaf programs. Having built up the program from scratch, Lee said she is “very happy with where it’s come.”

Lee had never worked with laundry, except at home, before applying to work at the College. When she moved to FIC and took on laundry for language schools, “it was all new to us,” she said. The staff would ask her how to do something, “and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know!’ I didn’t know how to fold a fitted sheet for the life of me!” she said.

I have also felt clueless throughout my life as to how to fold fitted sheets and usually end up rolling them into a ball, which was also Lee’s technique at home until someone from facilities taught her how to do it. The technique, which she shared with me is in fact amazingly simple, and comes out perfectly flat and square.

Lee said the learning process has been continuous throughout her eleven years supervising laundry services. She makes suggestions to her supervisors that make the job safer and more manageable, such as switching to a smaller bag for dirty laundry so that it could even be possible for her staff to lift the full bags off the cart. Still, the job is constantly changing. Each year she is asked to take on a little more work.

But then again, as Lee said, “life changes on a daily basis, so you just have to go with it. I never get too comfortable because I never know what’s going to be brought!”

When Lee moved to FIC, she hired three fifteen-year-old high school students — including Elise Biette, who is currently a freshman at the College — all of whom stayed with her for four years. Lee said she works to keep the job fun so that her high school and college student workers come back year after year. She keeps a white board that anyone can draw on in the press area (when I came to visit it was covered with Disney figures representing each of the staff’s personalities) and always keeps music playing. In the summertime, the music gets “quite loud,” Lee said, and she has little competitions between the staff to see, for example, who can fold a certain number of napkins the fastest.

In the summer, it can get very hot in the work area, and the workload can be intense, especially at the beginning, when the staff has to turn over all the linens from graduation for reunion two weeks later, which also happens to fall at the same time as the Young Writer’s Conference at Bread Loaf.

“It gets pretty hectic,” Lee said, “turning over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of linens within a week and a half. At the end of language schools is another rush, as her staff washes 2,100 blankets, sheets, mattress pads, towels and bath mats.

It takes about a month to wash all the language school linens. The bags of dirty laundry fill almost the entire dance floor of the Bunker in a seven to eight foot high mountain, as well as a walk-in cooler which the staff piles full all the way up to the fire extinguisher sprinklers on the ceiling — “as high as is legal.”

“It does get crazy in here,” Lee said. She’s had staff cry feeling so overwhelmed by this month of work. She tells her staff to “take it one day at a time; we’re only here, we’re only human, and we’ll do the best we can … there’s nothing else we can do.”

“If we’ve been really stressed,” Lee said, “and I’m looking at people, and it’s like slow-mo, and it’s hot in here too on top of that, I’ll be like ‘field trip!’ And I’ll take everybody outside for five to ten minutes just to get away from this.”

Lee calls a field trip a couple times throughout the summer, and every time, she does, the staff cheers.

When Lee’s three high school workers left her to go on to college last year, she cried to see them go, after she’d been sort of their “mother hen” for the past four years. But she is happy for her students that are now “spreading their wings”; they all stay in contact with her, and they are doing “really well” in college.

Nowadays, Lee finds, high school and college students don’t always possess the same drive as past generations.

“I was brought up differently,” she says, but today parents tend to be more indulgent — “and I treat my kids the same way, you know, I give them everything, so I’m feeding into what I don’t like!” But Lee finds that she has been “really lucky” with her young staff. They have been “really hard workers, really well-rounded students,” both at work and outside, and “good people” all around. Lee has had her share of challenges with some staff-members, “but of the eleven years,” she would say, “it’s been more positive than not.”

When I asked if she foresees working in laundry services for a long time into the future, she said she has “mixed feelings.” She is 46 years old, and this job — lifting the bags of dirty linens off the cart, sorting through eight loads of laundry, switching the loads as quickly as possible in the summer to keep the washers constantly running, standing at the press for five hours at a time — takes a physical toll.

“I would love to stay here and retire from the College,” Lee said, “because I like this job.”

Though the pay is similar to what could be found elsewhere, the benefits for College staff are unmatched in the region. When Lee’s nine- and twelve-year-old sons are old enough for college, they could attend Middlebury at a discounted rate, or receive credit to attend another school. The question, however, Lee said, is whether she will be physically capable of working with laundry services until her retirement.

“What will my body be like in ten to fifteen years?” she asked. “I’m hoping to [retire from the College], yes, but only the future knows that right now.”

Laundry Services is always open — seven days a week, all year long. And, hopefully, for many years into the future, Lee will be there, playing her music at top volume.