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When the Montrose Clinic merged last January with Bodypositive, a nonprofit wellness center with HIV-positive clientele, operations director Thomas Taylor began shopping for a linen service to clean the center's dirty towels. He settled on Admiral Linen and Uniform Service, which advertises its ability to serve Houston's medical, dental and institutional industries.
"I'd seen their trucks in the neighborhood," says Taylor. "I called them and explained we're a health care facility that did physical therapy. They set up service, and everything was going fine."
At the time, Taylor says, he did not tell Admiral officials that the fitness center members carry the virus that causes AIDS. The center's towels are soiled by sweat, which does not transmit HIV.
There were no problems with the service until a center staffer asked Admiral officials whether they could dispose of biohazardous materials if necessary. The company had that capability, and the Montrose Clinic arranged to pay an extra monthly fee if Admiral had to handle any material that had been contaminated by blood in accidents. No such mishaps have happened at the center.
In early May, Taylor received a certified letter from the company's vice president, Karen Ballard.
"It is with great regret I must inform you that due to circumstances beyond our control we will no longer be able to service your business," announced Ballard, saying the service would end in 30 days. She offered no explanation, only an apology for any inconvenience caused to the center.
When the June 11 cutoff date approached and Thomas had not found another laundry service, he called Admiral "to ask if they might extend service for a week or so while I finalized agreements with other services," he says. "At that point, the person I spoke to checked with his supervisor and came back and said no and the reason was that their employees were concerned about HIV."
Asked whether Taylor's account of events was accurate, Ballard told The Insider she'd have to check with other company officials. She did not return subsequent calls.
Taylor says Admiral was not the only company that declined to pick up the center's laundry. Imperial Linen seemed prepared to take the contract, and this time Taylor made sure the firm understood that the center served HIV-positive people. Later that afternoon, according to Taylor, Imperial faxed over a message saying the company "refuses to bid on your account," and cited concerns over HIV. Imperial Linen owner Gayle Page responds that he is unaware of any denial of services to the wellness center.
After more searching, Taylor finally found an agreeable outfit. For two weeks Angelica Textile Services has been picking up laundry without incident. "They're aware we're a health care facility," notes Taylor. "I'm not sure if I emphasized the HIV part of it."
Taylor figures that if a laundry service like Admiral advertises that it can handle medical-related jobs, it should make good on the promise. "If you are going to offer a biohazardous service and you are charging for that, it implies you know what the risks are for potentially infectious materials and you know how to handle them. Their reaction implies that they really don't understand those things."
Katy Caldwell, executive director of the Montrose Clinic, says the laundry problems illustrate the misinformation that still exists concerning HIV.
"What we have here are sweaty gym towels. HIV is not transmitted through sweaty clothing, and it doesn't live for a very long period of time outside the body," notes Caldwell.
"Here we are 20 years into this epidemic, and there are people who still have the attitudes [prevalent] back in the early days when we really didn't know much about HIV. I'm shocked these attitudes are still out there. I had -- perhaps naively -- thought they were gone."
John Painter works out regularly at the center. The 51-year-old man recalls that before the professional laundry service, members brought their own towels or used the "harsh, scratchy" linens provided at the center. He has appeared on the Debra Duncan Show and in other forums to educate the public about HIV, and regards the linen companies' refusals as a throwback to another era.
"I'm out and about and very up-front, and try to gather a lot of information and pass it on to people," says Painter. "I can't say that I have experienced discrimination. This is just an isolated pool of ignorance."
Although Montrose Clinic officials have given no indication they will go to court on the issue, agency attorney Mitchell Katine says federal law does offer some remedies for discrimination by companies against facilities serving HIV-positive people.
He cites the federal Americans with Disabilities Act: "No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges or advantages of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases or operates a place of public accommodation."
The act broadly defines public accommodations to include such businesses as Laundromats, dry cleaners, banks and barbershops. "A Laundromat or dry cleaner certainly sounds like this type of entity," Katine says of linen companies.
"Most of the cases [under the act] talk about places where people can go where they are prohibited from participating. This has a little different twist to it, but I believe it would come under the same law banning discrimination in the way that services are provided based on the person's disability."
Next time before a laundry company declines to pick up towels at an HIV patient facility, they might keep those legal red flags in mind.