Are Women Being Taken to The Cleaners?

SOME women face sexual discrimination in the workplace; others may encounter bias at their neighborhood dry cleaner.In Massachusetts, Attorney General Scott Harshbarger's office recently surveyed 25 dry cleaners by telephone in the greater Boston area and found almost half charged women up to three times as much to launder their shirts as they charged men. The dry cleaners claim that women's shirts don't fit the standard body presses used for shirts and therefore require hand pressing. They also say ornamentation on women's blouses such as ruffles, bows, or puffy sleeves must be hand pressed. But Barbara Anthony, chief of the Public Protection Bureau in the attorney general's office, and other co-workers conducted their own survey to see if these reasons were legitimate. Ms. Anthony brought her size 6 plain pink cotton blouse to several cleaners and was told she would be charged $3. When a male co-worker brought the same shirt to the same cleaners he was charged $1.50. The small investigative team also learned that men's fancy pleated tuxedo shirts were being put on the body press, proving th at some ornamentation can undergo the standard process. "Dry cleaners have told me they don't make a lot of money on men's shirts. It's a convenience they offer men," Anthony says. "They make their money on dry cleaning and pressing by hand, so that if women can be persuaded that they need to have their shirts pressed by hand" it is more profitable. Paying more than men to have shirts laundered is a problem she has encountered during the 20 years of her career, she says. WOMEN around the United States and in some other countries face the same discrimination, says John Banzhaf, a professor of public interest law at the George Washington University law school. Several years ago, he and several students filed complaints against dry cleaners in the District of Columbia who were charging on the basis of sex. Dry cleaners there must now charge the same price. Some shirts which are extremely small or too large to fit the press, or whose style requires extra care, can justify ad ditional labor charges if the consideration is based on those factors. Although California also had three cases that resulted in settlements, the District of Columbia law is the strictest in the nation. Two Virginia counties have also adopted the D.C. law. Mr. Banzhaf says he has contacted various women's and legal organizations to see if they were interested in pursuing the issue, but he says little action has been taken. "As far as I know the practice continues, and unless some large organization wants to take it on, not much is going to happen," he says. The Massachusetts attorney general's office has sent a letter to each of the dry cleaners in its survey, warning them not to discriminate on the basis of sex. The North East Fabricare Association, an industry trade group representing the New England and New York area, has offered to help inform dry cleaners throughout New England about prohibitions against price discrimination. Mr. Harshbarger plans to survey the industry again and take legal action if the practice continues.

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