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Human Rights Officials: Dry Cleaners Charge Women More

August 8, 1991

CHICAGO (AP) _ Are launderers taking women to the cleaners?

The Illinois Human Rights Department says yes: Dry cleaners routinely charge more to clean women’s shirts than men’s.

Dry cleaning industry officials say that’s true, but there’s a good reason: Women’s blouses typically require more hand-cleaning than men’s shirts.

The state now is trying to determine if there is sufficiently serious gender discrimination to warrant negotiating a formal price agreement with five Chicago cleaners that it recently studied, a spokesman for the Human Rights Department said Thursday.

If one can’t be reached, the next step would be to file a formal complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, which could send the case to an administrative law judge, according to the spokesman, Dick Battles.

At five Chicago cleaners studied by the state, women were charged 35 cents to more than $2 more for exactly the same services, Battles said. The Illinois Human Rights Act prohibits any company providing a public service from discriminating because of gender.

″We understand that the practice is universal. We are aware that it has been a longstanding procedure,″ Battles said.

Dry cleaning industry officials say price differences have been an issue for years, and they acknowledge charges often are higher for women’s cleaning than men’s.

But they say the difference is dictated by economics.

Machinery used to finish men’s shirts can’t be used on smaller women’s shirts, said Alice Laban, spokeswoman for the International Fabricare Institute in Silver Spring, Md.

″Those shirts have to be finished by hand, so it naturally takes longer and costs more,″ Ms. Laban said.

″We don’t support any kind of sex discrimination, but we do understand why dry cleaners charge a different price,″ she said.

The average price to dry clean a blouse ranged from $2.74 in the South to $3.37 in the Northeast, according to International Fabricare Institute statistics from November 1990.

Laundering a men’s shirt cost between $1.20 in the South and $1.43 in the West, the institute said.

Battles said the state does not object to higher prices for special handling.

″We’re looking at (cleaners) charging more to women than men when exactly the same processing is indicated,″ he said.

He said he did not know the specific prices charged by the cleaners under investigation. The state has not identified the cleaners. He added that the state has no plans to expand the investigation.

Similar complaints come up periodically around the country, said Hal Horning, editor of the monthly trade magazine National Clothesline, published in Philadelphia.

Two complaints before the District of Columbia Human Rights Office in 1989 accused two Washington dry cleaners of charging women more than men, according to National Clothesline. Local trade associations settled the complaints by writing gender-free pricing guidelines, the magazine said.

The guidelines approved extra charges for special handling required by such things as dark or bright colors, frills, gathers, padded shoulders, ruffles, delicate trims, zippers and closed fronts.

″We’ve always advised cleaners that ... if you’re not doing any hand pressing or anything special, there’s no reason to charge anything more for a woman’s shirt,″ Horning said.