Exclusive tour of laundry plant in UPMC mold crisis: 'We have nothing to hide'

About Paris Companies The DuBois linen plant employs 307 and a nearby uniform service plant employs 138. The company also runs facilities in Williamsport and Ravenna, Ohio. and employs 669. Parent company, Paris Co., employs more than 800. It serves customers...

Exclusive tour of laundry plant in UPMC mold crisis: 'We have nothing to hide'

About Paris Companies

The DuBois linen plant employs 307 and a nearby uniform service plant employs 138. The company also runs facilities in Williamsport and Ravenna, Ohio. and employs 669. Parent company, Paris Co., employs more than 800. It serves customers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia and New Jersey. Annually, in total, Paris ships more than 103 million pounds of clean laundry. In 2016, the company's DuBois plant laundered 44 million pounds of laundry for hospitals and health care systems.

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Updated 13 minutes ago

DUBOIS — Dave Stern calls it his identity — a $14 million linen laundry plant with towering washing machines, high-powered dryers and conveyor belts hauling massive bags of dirty hospital laundry.

“We have nothing to hide,” he said as he showed off the 65,000-square foot facility.

During a two-hour interview, the CEO of Paris Companies defended an enterprise embroiled in several high-profile lawsuits along with one of its largest customers, health giant UPMC. The lawsuits claim Paris and UPMC are responsible for the deaths of three patients who contracted fungal infections at UPMC facilities in Pittsburgh, where they used linens that Paris laundered.

Stern, 65, who got his start in dry cleaning with his father at age 5, became emotional when discussing the fallout from the lawsuits with the Tribune-Review.

“It's hard,” he said, tearing up and temporarily halting the interview this week. He left the room, composed himself and returned a few minutes later.

“It's me,” he said of his business. “It's my identity. I'm still in tune with everything that is going on with the customers and people.”

On Wednesday, Paris' lawyers argued in legal documents that UPMC is responsible for sterilizing its linens, while denying that any linens became contaminated at the Paris plant. An internal UPMC report authored by mold expert Andrew Streifel showed some linens were wet when examined at UPMC but should have been dry. Testing later revealed the linens contained mold. The report did not prompt action from state and federal agencies that previously investigated the mold crisis.

Stern said his company's relationship with UPMC remains strong and they continue to launder linens for 22 of their facilities.

“With customers like UPMC we're constantly improving our processes,” Stern said.

He declined to discuss specifics of the lawsuit.

“To the extent that an immunosuppressed patient should have been provided sterile linens, such a scenario entails a medical judgment to be made by the professionals at UPMC,” attorneys for Paris Cleaners Inc. wrote in a legal response Wednesday to the lawsuits filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Stern forged his business in the basement of his childhood home in Brockway, just 11 miles north of DuBois. After graduating from Duquesne University in 1973, he opened a uniform rental business in his house, while working at his father Jack's dry cleaning business, known as Paris Cleaners and Dryers. His first client was a Chevrolet car dealership. He now has 4,000 uniform rental customers.

As the uniform company blossomed, Stern decided in 1990 to begin providing linen service to hospitals and nursing homes. He initially housed the health care linen service in his uniform plant, also in DuBois. In 2009, he opened a new plant on nearby Tom Mix Road dedicated to medical linens.

Stern and Paris vice president Randy Rosetti toured the Trib through the Paris Healthcare Linen Services plant Thursday.

In the plant's soiled laundry area, employees open plastic, recyclable bags of dirty laundry, sort it and feed it onto conveyor belts. The linens are mechanically bagged before it travels on to a rail system that eventually drops the laundry into one of three large tunnel washing machines, valued at $1.5 million apiece.

Employees sorting soiled linens are required to wear gloves and gowns. They also need to be on the lookout for syringes, jewelry and other items that get wrapped in medical linens.

“That's the crappy part of the job,” Rosetti said. “It's their jobs to sort soiled linen.”

Inside the washers, the water temperature reaches 160 degrees. The linens are cleaned with hydrogen peroxide.

“Peroxide is better for the fabric and we feel it is better for the cleanliness,” Rosetti said.

Stern said the washing machines are frequently inspected by technicians.

Paris uses microfiber sheets for the health industry that are reputed to be softer, lighter and more hygienic than cotton sheets. It owns all of its linens and rents them to its customers.

After laundry is washed at the plant, it is transferred via rail conveyor belt to the plant's clean side, where they are placed in dryers that reach temperatures of up to 390 degrees. Employees then feed the linens through irons that reach temperatures of 350 degrees.

“Everything here is highly efficient,” Rosetti said. “Our relationship with our customers are all built around trust. We trust each other and we're always looking to do the right thing. It's not always about our bottom line.”

All Paris Healthcare plants are accredited by the Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council. Stern was instrumental in its formation, serving as its first president and later as a board member.

Yet Streifel, who authored the UPMC report that uncovered faults at the Paris plant,

told the Trib last month that he found the site too dusty and dirty to meet HLAC standards.

Both Stern and Rosetti acknowledge a laundry business is going to create lint and dust, but maintain cleanliness is paramount to their operations.

Former Paris employees who reached out to the Tribune-Review after it broke the story about the legal action against the company said they often saw wet linens packed up for delivery.

“If the truck drivers were waiting around to get loads, we were told to fill them up, whether the laundry was wet or not,” said Gail Weinzierl,57, of Punxsutawney. She worked in various positions at Paris from 2009 through early 2014.

Weinzierl said a shoulder injury in a car accident forced her to leave to Paris, because her managers would not put her on lighter duty.

Rebecca Delio, 50, of Falls Creek, worked at Paris from 2008 through 2014.

“The person packing the linen order at the end of the belt does not have time to sort through each stack to check for this,” she said. “The production mandate numbers are so high that the person trying to make rate so they don't get fired doesn't have time to check either.”

Stern described the work culture at his facilities as family-oriented, a place where employees receive free turkeys before Thanksgiving and hams on Easter.

“To this day, I still meet with every employee of the company,” Stern said. “I share with them that ‘I know how hard you work. I've been there. I've done it.'”

In DuBois, about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, business leaders describe Stern as a generous corporate partner .

“I've toured the plant and I believe it's a well-run operation,” said Dan Dowling, director of the DuBois YMCA, who also is a member of the local chamber of commerce. “I feel like there's more to this story that has yet to come out.”

Dowling said Paris frequently contributes to YMCA youth sports leagues and recently helped with fundraising for renovations to the YMCA building.

“Dave personally came to a number of our fundraising campaigns,” he said. “It was nice to have someone of that level here.”

Paula Rock, director of social services for the Free Medical Clinic of DuBois Inc., said Stern has always supported the clinic in fundraising and through money donations.

She went to high school with Stern at DuBois Central Catholic High School.

“He's always been a gentleman and a person of integrity,” she said. “Paris has always stepped up to the plate for us, and Dave is very involved in supporting the community. I think he has a good heart.”

As for the allegations, she said, “right now everything is speculative.

“Obviously, there are families of people who have suffered greatly as a result of something. Whose fault that is remains unknown. At this point, people are going to speculate, but nobody knows unequivocally who is responsible.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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