Help is at hand

Jan Raycroft reports

Reaching out to friends in a time of crisis always makes sense, and during the COVID- 19 pandemic our trade associations have been doing their utmost to lend a helping hand – social distancing permitting! Jan Raycroft reports.

Textile Services Association

David Stevens, chief executive of the Textile Services Association (TSA), is not a man to mince his words in these troubled times – even when writing to government ministers like Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

‘We’ve been hung out to dry’ he declared in his latest letter, this time on re-start grants and the lack of availability for many commercial laundries caught in a perpetual ‘Computer says No’ world when they apply to their sympathetic but ultimately unhelpful local authorities. Some do get through the red tape, but with grants being discretionary there is no guarantee of automatic consideration.

‘Before that it was the lockdown grants. And the VAT reduction. And the business rates relief. Every time, we get ignored, and we get nothing.’ Strong words, but all factual and reflecting the sheer frustration and worries of a sector serving hospitality and other commercial operations emerging from Covid restrictions.

Stevens continues to seek an explanation from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as to why such an intrinsic part of what keeps hospitality ticking behind the scenes has been ignored. He reckons some 100 letters have gone out from the TSA covering various strands of how the laundry industry is suffering, with most eliciting a generic response – a frustration shared by other sectors most impacted by the pandemic.

“The truth is that without furlough we wouldn’t still have an industry. And even with an uplift in work there’s the reality that some businesses will not survive. It’s been a desperate situation for many, losing as much as 90 per cent of their usual business, in laundries running on tight margins and often relying on weekly turnover. You can feel the emotional stress on top of all that.” This empathy is not just based on the professional standing of the TSA. As a previous operator with some 40 years under his belt, Stevens has personal experience of how even a bad week turning into a bad month can impact on workflow and margins – let alone the consequences of lengthy shutdowns.

The TSA itself has been operating strict cost control during the crisis while providing ‘credit notes’ on 2019 and 2020 fees to those members hit hardest by lockdowns. While Stevens might be the ‘face’ of the TSA in challenging government, he is keen to stress that technical services manager Shyju Skariah and admin and finance officer Emma Andersson “have done an amazing job, way beyond reasonable expectations.” With a new content management system, they’ve updated the website and provided regular updates to hundreds of industry members. Within all the turmoil and heavy workload, the team has spotted some silver linings for the association and its membership. Stevens has become a convert to working from home when possible and that cutting so much driving time means more hours can be focussed on the job at hand.

Then there are some extraordinary figures from webinars held during the crisis, with some 1,500 plus participants taking part in sessions covering topics which might normally have involved a few hundred at most in all of 2019’s face-to-face meetings. Stevens says they’ve seen the level of engagement go up by 10 times, and the number of TSA laundry members has almost doubled from 43 to 77.

The webinars have been attracting engineers from Scotland to Southampton who might normally miss sessions by being ‘on the road’. And topics covered have taken many of those tuning in to new realms, such as mental health, women in the industry and tackling diversity. Stevens has heard many managing directors say: “We’ve never talked about this before.” He welcomes moves which open eyes to the reality of this not being an industry all about ‘hairy blokes’. There has been a project with De Montfort University on coronaviruses on textiles and an ongoing study of test methodologies. Training offers now include the textile care operative apprenticeship standard, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), and courses covering textile services management, laundry technology and production, and boiler management.

Stevens remains positive as he continues to challenge MPs with this message: “We will get back to work – but we need your support.”

David Stevens, chief executive of the TSA, may have been at the forefront of campaigns to get government recognition of the industry’s plight, but praises the behind-the-scenes hard work of admin and finance officer Emma Andersson and technical services manager Shyju Skariah

SHLSLM

SHLSLM

If members of The Society of Hospital Linen Services and Laundry Managers (SHLSLM) thought they’d seen it all, the past year and a half has proved extraordinary as they found themselves on the frontline of the battle to beat Covid.

Now, looking ahead to lessons learnt, Dave Grimshaw, the society’s national chairman and general manager of Salisbury Linen Services at Salisbury District Hospital, believes one gain will be agility when it comes to problem solving: “There were so many issues to deal with in the past 18 months and one of the things that’s come out of it is a real sense that if we had to face a similar crisis of any kind the responses would be quicker and very effective.” Battle-hardened perhaps, and ready to ensure the voices of hospital linen managers are heard far and wide.

For instance, Grimshaw highlights the issue of when just about all frontline medical staff wanted scrubs rather than their usual wear. That was always going to create shortages and he believes linen managers should have been far more involved in untangling procurement as they are used to dealing with suppliers. Another pinch-point came with the announcement that open windows helped in the pandemic response – suddenly vulnerable patients required more blankets, even with the heating on. Matters such as this, processing of reusable PPE and the question of whether a national NHS uniform would make more sense than individual trusts going their own way, will all be on the SHLSLM watchlist in the coming year.

It’s the 70th anniversary of the society and it would be easy to look back to the days when most hospitals had their own laundries – now just 13 full scale operations remain. Grimshaw believes there is a strong possibility that some trusts will see the value of opening ‘mini hospital laundries’ handling scrubs and specialist items on site. The society will have a big part to play in all this – look out for news on its revamped website this summer.

Guild of Cleaners and Launderers

The efforts of the TSA and others in trying to persuade government of the injustice of failing to see the sector as an essential service, is recognised by Ken Cupitt, exams board chairman of the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers (GCL).

“Our laundry and drycleaning industry has just gone through a horrendous year, never before experienced by any previous generation, with revenues being squeezed through constantly repeating lockdowns changing the way of working for many and putting in jeopardy the earning power of others,” he says. “Government-led initiatives were introduced allegedly to provide some financial benefits, but whole swathes in our business community have been left out – putting these businesses, and the livelihoods of its dependents, at a very severe risk, because we were left outside of the rules and regulations put in to control the schemes.

For the government, this error was on top of the massive early mistake of not stocking in the NHS reusable (launderable) gowns, which led to shortages at hospitals, causing a crisis at the beginning of the pandemic.” Cupitt believes this was a ‘massive error’ in not recognising our industry could have provided a valuable backup service in the early days when PPE was in such short supply, by washing and turning around in short cycles, but with only single use items this was made impossible. Like others, he has become a huge fan of Zoom type meetings: “These can save thousands of pounds annually for a business and make it more efficient by keeping employees working longer at their job rather than the long commute for a company meeting. “This technology was not developed for a virus-infected economy, but it certainly has found its place, and will be here to stay for the future.”

Cupitt has followed with fascination research into the hygiene of textiles carried out on behalf of the Guild, supported by the Company of Launderers, by Northumbria University, and the TSA project with the De Montfort University, Leicester. However, you sense some frustration that although this is for the benefit of the whole industry, it’s only paid for by those who belong to these industry bodies. Where do we go from here? Cupitt says: “Sadly, some businesses will not have survived because the cash help made available either did not reach them because they fell outside of the rules applied, or it proved insufficient to provide an adequate cashflow to cover all commitments. This gap in the market created will be quickly taken up by those who have survived and are eager to replenish their now near empty coffers. Business debts will have risen over the course of the pandemic, and this also will have to be paid back but we will still have an industry and we will have a market to serve.”

He expects that some laundries with the high standards required will pick up the re-usable gowns within hospitals, but profit margins will be tight on this market or the pressure to return to single use PPE will bring back old decisions.

Drycleaners, already affected by the likes of polyester fibre in clothing making home washing and finishing much easier, face tough times with the ‘work from home’ expansion and ‘dress down days’. Countering some of this will be the return of social functions encouraging people to dress up and dine out, often staying in hotels.

One thing the buying public will not wish to give up is their love of home deliveries and our retail sector, if not already satisfying this requirement, may have to adopt, or buy in, an arrangement with a professional transport business, some form of home delivery or collection and delivery,” he believes. “Quality of service, however, will always be of paramount importance and being in the clean business we should practice what we preach and provide a level of service equal to the task, free from stains and well finished and returned on time.”

Guild members subscription fees have been discounted by a 25 per cent reduction for the coming year and to help those with cashflow problems there is a facility for making monthly payments. The Guild’s valuable collection of technical books now has three new entries introduced during the pandemic and online and distance courses will have a part to play for both newcomers and those wishing to expand their knowledge.

The Guild, in cooperation with CINET, uses bespoke or template framework online learning, each course dedicated to a sector of our industry, to provide flexibility and personalised approach to an employee’s need to succeed. All are built to work flawlessly on multi-device platforms ,meaning they can be accessed from anywhere and on any device. And expanded networking, whether online monthly seminars and e-bulletins are tackling problems and industry issues, meaning advice and knowledge can be quickly shared.

Online meetings have flourished during Covid, though few bothered with a suit! Sessions covering specific and urgent topics attracted far more attendees for our industry organisations than face-to-face gatherings

NALI recognises that some launderettes have closed, but the bulk will survive having been considered an essential service during the pandemic – and there are signs of new entrants to this sector

National Association of the Launderette Industry (NALI)

The committee of the National Association of the Launderette Industry (NALI) may not have been able to meet face-to-face during the pandemic, but as the backbone of coin-op establishments has been kept busy looking after members’ interests, says vice-chairman Mary Simons.

“A few coin-op businesses have not survived Covid, or perhaps their owners decided on a different career route,” Simons reveals. But there’s another side to this coin as through the family business of AGS she’s also seen many people make contact who want to open new launderettes or install a coin-op installation into their drycleaning outlet. Launderettes will survive, especially as they were considered an essential service so could remain open during the lockdowns.

Simons believes every business should belong to a trade association as the knowledge and information that can be gleaned is ‘worth its weight in gold’. Not that you need a pile of gold to belong to NALI: It costs just over 20p per day to belong and take advantage of numerous benefits including the quarterly members-only journal Launderette and Cleaning World, health and safety guidelines, window sticker confirming you belong to the trade association are just the start.

NALI represents members to utility suppliers, the HSE and government departments on taxation and restrictive trade issues and has access to an independent conciliation advisory service to help resolve disputes between members and customers. Then there’s posters, a code of practice, fighting fund to provide financial backing to meet the costs of legally challenging (in the courts if necessary) damaging or unworkable legislation, an online forum and access to legal advice on all business aspects of running a launderette.

Members include not only owners and operators of high street launderettes but also any individual, company or organisation offering coin-op launderettes such as marinas, hotels, universities, caravan and camping sites.

Simons says: “Although launderettes in the UK have fallen from their peak in the 1970s, NALI is still at the forefront, ensuring that all information relating to coin-op outlets from the government and local authorities is provided to all its members. When you include the day to day running of launderettes as well as what has happened and been reported this is an enormous amount of information.”

Worshipful Company of Launderers

The prestigious livery company has at last been able to renew the social side of its activities after a year when gatherings of its Company and Court have been severely curtailed. As Total Laundry’s managing director Sarah Lancaster, a Liveryman and Court Assistant, says: “We can actually go out to dinner, attend our ceremonies and functions – long may it continue.”

But as she’s keen to point out, while June events including the installation court and annual service are important markers of something approaching normal activities, behind the scenes much has been going on. For instance, the livery company – along with other industry organisations – was delighted when Vikas Shah MBE, managing director of Swiscot Group, was appointed a non-executive board member at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), giving us a noted voice at the top table.

Very importantly in a year plus of crisis, the Worshipful Company of Launderers has managed to support people and organisations, often in urgent need, through charitable grants awarded by its Benevolence Committee led by Paul Higgs. He explains: “We manage to do all the due diligence while being able to respond quite swiftly and flexibly, whether it’s to cover perhaps a wheelchair needed by a former drycleaner or sponsoring a child at Christs’ Hospital School.”

Vital funds have been allocated in recent months to charities and projects helping people of all ages, from covering the cost of nebulisers for asthma sufferers in Southwark to a grant to The Fashion and Textile Children’s Trust, which supports children of people working in the textile industry, covering school uniforms, beds, household items and educational needs for children with a disability or additional needs.

As Higgs says: “It’s not all about booze and dos!”

But today we raise a glass to all those working in our industry’s trade associations to ensure we have a voice at government level, share knowledge or reach out to help others.

Vital funds have been allocated in recent months to charities and projects helping people of all ages

All news articles

Want to read more?

There are lots of ways to view articles from Laundry & Cleaning Today

Prefer to subscribe and receive a printed copy of Laundry & Cleaning Today? Click here

If you have a story to share or a general enquiry, call 0118 901 4471 or email info@laundryandcleaningtoday.co.uk

Sponsored