Ready for take off31 May 2022
The pandemic has taken its toll on the USA textile care market but despite that, and other challenges, the industry is gearing up to fly high once more even if there is a little turbulence
Traveling from location to location enabled TRSA staff to learn about members’ pandemic-related strategies, tactics, and challenges firsthand and share these stories of recovery and resilience with others at subsequent Reopening Tour stops. TRSA social media were used to support staff’s observations and interaction, enabling all members to benefit.
During the earlier 2021 tour segments in the Southeastern and Midwestern states, TRSA witnessed the emergence of staff vaccination efforts, increased safety protocols and increased hygiene product marketing. Member operators specialising in flatwork service to hotels and restaurants contended with decreased workloads while the healthcare flatwork and industrial workwear sectors had fewer significant declines.
As the tour progressed through California, the Northeast, and Florida, production labor shortages persisted, challenging members to deploy new recruiting and retention strategies. Interest in automation to decrease the number of workers needed remained strong, particularly to address production employee recruiting challenges. Members reported that maintenance and engineering positions continued to be a major concern; by automating more, the industry must increase competitiveness in attracting skilled labour. Increased wages became more common, especially to compete with higher-paying industries for labour, as did incentives to new hires for remaining.
Operators who hosted tour visits were able to take advantage of TRSA social media videos for recruiting. Recorded during the visits, these featured interviews with employees who came to the industry in recent years and remained through the pandemic or came back after furloughs. Working in the industry has improved life dramatically for those who came from difficult backgrounds, such as homelessness, incarceration, and single parenthood. They testified to benefiting from flexible work schedules, good pay, teamwork, and camaraderie. Supervisors and mid-level managers, veteran and new, highlighted their long-term and recent career advancement.
TRSA’s March Business Pulse Survey of member operators indicated that just 11 percent of them are fully staffed in production; about one third of them are 90 to 99 percent staffed in this function, with most of the rest (39%) at 80-89%. Just 15% have full route driver staffing but almost half are at 90-99%.
National and international legislation
TRSA’s 12th Annual Legislative Conference and Industry Awards Dinner closed 31 March, in Washington with nearly 80 in-person and virtual meetings with federal legislators and their staff, exhibiting members’ dedication to the association’s advocacy agenda. Citing their industry’s performance through the pandemic, they articulated how the nation would benefit if government would:
- Enable workers to be properly protected by compelling businesses to balance their use of reusable textile personal protective equipment (PPE) with disposable equivalents;
- Maximise infection prevention by requiring uniform wearers to change at work and linen/uniform services to process their garments; and,
- Improve public health by giving the industry priority in the restoration of public utilities in the wake of natural disasters, extending the essential industry designation the industry received in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to such disasters.
These apply to the industry’s services to any type of business. But TRSA members who serve all markets used their annual (Capitol) Hill Day to advance this agenda largely for the industry’s service to hospitals. Members called for legislation that would ensure these facilities maintain a 50/50 balance of reusable and disposable PPE and prompt wearers of scrubs to leave these at work; and for the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to give the industry high priority because its hygienically clean textiles protect first responders and support their efforts to save lives.
TRSA is also working globally, particularly with the European Textile Services Association (ETSA) to track pandemic recovery and manage regulatory regimes through working groups. TRSA is sharing its experience from encounters with state and federal US lawmakers and regulators interested in regulating the industry’s discharges of microplastics and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to sewers.
Regarding microplastics, TRSA is contending with the issue on the federal and state levels, particularly in California, where meetings took place in each of three years to show legislators the industry should not be required to install filtration systems to capture 100 percent of microfiber shedding from textiles. TRSA is supporting ETSA in the development of its public consultation on the European Commission’s microplastics initiative. It’s a key deliverable of the EC’s Circular Economy Action Plan and Zero Pollution Action Plan.
California legislators considered PFAS measures that didn’t get introduced but contemplated empowering the state Water Resources Control Board to visit laundries and mandate controls on their discharges. In its pledge to re-engage in the United Nationals Global Compact, ETSA noted that its members want to ensure work continues toward eliminating PFAS use through development of alternatives. But PFAS’ role in protective clothing and PPE will be needed to maintain hygienic and safety standards until viable alternatives become more readily available.
Other food for thought
TRSA qualifies and quantifies flat linen and workwear laundries and companies’ commitments to cleanliness and sustainability by certifying them through the Hygienically Clean and Clean Green programs. These serve primarily to build certified businesses by adding to their credibility with their customers and prospects. TRSA’s recent Market Recovery and Expansion research indicates greater promotion of these programs to consumers would increase competitiveness of certified organizations’ customers.
In this survey of 1,000 consumers, 65 percent or more of respondents agreed with these statements about how Hygienically Clean and Clean Green would impact their choice of a hotel:
- All else equal, I would have higher satisfaction with a hotel where I saw a placard or notice of the certifications;
- All else equal, I would be more likely to book a hotel where I knew they had Hygienically Clean or Clean Green sheets and towels; and,
- I would be more likely to leave a positive review of the hotel on the internet.
For impact on textile services to restaurants, the survey asked consumers about their preference for a dining experience with cloth napkins, tablecloths, and wait staff. Then they were asked about how a restaurant’s use of a certified laundry to provide these would affect this preference. It rose from 55% to 71% of respondents for Hygienically Clean and to 69% for Clean Green.
Regarding healthcare settings, consumers were asked how Hygienically Clean would impact their choice of a cloth patient gown versus a disposable. Preference for cloth grew from 50 to 61% of respondents (up 11%). For other reusables versus their disposable equivalents, preference for pillowcases grew 8 percent and exam bench sheets and towels, 7% each.
Findings from the study were shared in TRSA’s recent virtual conferences programmed for the industry’s specialists in restaurant and hotel textile services. The conferences were provided at no cost to members, including TRSA’s international members.
TRSA witnessed on the Reopening Tour members’ innovation not just with the latest laundry equipment, but with their people skills. Operators’ management displayed acumen in supervising shorthanded workforces and working with customers whose expectations for timeliness and product supply had to be adjusted. Before the pandemic, everyday business transactions between textile services companies and customers dominated communications between them. Now both sides are beset by labour and supply shortages that affect their ability to perform a variety of functions. The parties are becoming more flexible and speaking more delicately to preserve valuable long-term relationships.
On the other hand, not all relationships have been profitable for textile services, which meant ‘firing’ some customers. As the tour began in 2021 many hosts mentioned the need to do so for their pandemic survival. As the tour progressed into 2022, members highlighted customers’ recognition of the need for their textile services invoices to cover laundries’ rising costs.
The most recent quarterly Robert W. Baird & Co survey of industry operators indicates success in this respect: workwear specialists reported base pricing had increased 2.6% on existing accounts, following a 3.1% gain the previous quarter. That was easily a record in Baird’s survey history, as such gains historically have been in the 1.5% to 2.0% range. For flatwork linen providers, the bump had taken place in the third quarter of 2021, when Baird’s price diffusion index soared above 65; the previous high was 53 in December 2019. It was 35.7 in the first quarter of 2022. Like the same index for workwear, this metric is historically negative.
The pandemic appears to have accelerated trends already under way before Covid-19 struck. Delivery routes have become more efficient. SKUs are down, which is a plus for commingling inventory between customers, improving the economics of textile rental. Many companies haven’t returned to full capacity, but their expertise has grown in scaling operations, as they learned much about do so in the early days of the pandemic.
Social media influence and looking ahead
As it took place, the TRSA Reopening Tour was an exceptional activity for engaging members and the industry. Tour stops hosts engaged TRSA staff. The industry experienced each tour day through TRSA social media, as posts for the five segments exceeded 700, generating nearly 300,000 impressions, views, likes and comments on TRSA’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages.
The tour’s long-lasting impacts continue to be felt wherever TRSA travels. TRSA President and CEO Ricci recently shared how the tour affected his views on industry issues for VDMA, the German manufacturers’ association, which met in April in Frankfurt. He’ll do the same at ETSA’s Annual Conference in Rome in May.
Kevin Schwalb, vice president, government relations, is TRSA’s representative to ETSA working groups. International readership of TRSA media has grown. A large overseas contingent is expected for the Clean Show in Atlanta, 30 July-2 August, the first major Western Hemisphere laundry exhibition since Covid-19 struck.
“For a laundry operator, textile services is a local market business,” says Ricci. “You’re most concerned about the economy in the geographic territory you serve and its impact on flatwork linen and workwear. But Covid-19 created enough of the same issues for operators worldwide that these businesses everywhere now seem to have much more in common. Sharing the disasters from a global pandemic is far from the ideal way to increase global unity in an industry. But it’s happening in ours.”
TOUR OF DUTY
From March 2021 to March 2022, writes JimPomeranz, Joseph Ricci, President and CEO of the Textile Rental Services Association (TRSA), led a Reopening Tour, documenting the industry’s steadily advancing COVID-19 recovery. In five one-to- two weeklong trips, TRSA staff traveled nearly 8,000 miles, visiting nearly 100 TRSA member companies in 32 continental United States.
“We wanted to document our industry’s resiliency by re-connecting face-to-face with members to continue fostering a sense of community and information-sharing among members,” explained Ricci. “Building on our Stronger Together mantra, we wanted to highlight our members’ ability to deliver its essential services supporting critical infrastructure from healthcare to food processing, manufacturing, logistics and other industries with hygienic, environmental and supply chain sustainable products and services.”
Following are reflections of various topics that confronted Ricci and staff during the journey. Also included is a discussion of current issues and a look ahead for the industry. Information for this article came from Ricci, TRSA’s Membership and Industry Outreach Director Ken Koepper, and additional TRSA staff.