Dr. Uché Blackstock didn't want to do her laundry. And that was understandable. It was late March, the coronavirus crisis seemed to be getting worse every day, and Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician in New York City, was coming off a 12-hour shift.
So instead, she decided to treat herself and get her laundry done elsewhere. Because so many mom-and-pop laundromats had shuttered as a result of the pandemic, Blackstock poked around the internet for services that were still up and running. Soon enough, she came across Cleanly, a sleek New York-based laundry service with its own phone app.
On the surface, the company seemed tailor-made for young professionals surviving in the COVID-19 era like her. Cleanly's website has a startup's sheen, with staff members' lofty job titles to match (they are "customer service wizards" and "concierges"). There's a customer-service chat and the promise of next-day, contact-less laundry delivery—all for about $1.90 a pound. The process, as outlined on the Cleanly site, seems simple and intuitive, too: A driver grabs your laundry from your doorstep and brings it to be processed at a fulfillment center and laundromat, before returning it to you.
Blackstock was already sold. But Cleanly also seemed to be making an effort to help the nurses and doctors who were fighting the coronavirus in New York City, which was quickly becoming the center of the outbreak. At the top of Cleanly's website, the company asks for people to "Gift Laundry to Nurses & Doctors Fighting COVID-19." For every one dollar donated to health care workers' laundry costs, Cleanly promises to do an extra 55 cents of free laundry for those essential workers. "Send Our Healthcare Workers The Gift of Clean Laundry," the company suggests. On another area of the website, the company asks health care workers to sign up should they be scrambling to wash their scrubs and lab coats. "Are you a nurse or doctor helping with COVID-19?" the company asks. "Let us help you with laundry."
There is only one small problem: Cleanly keeps losing everyone's clothes.
VICE spoke to nearly a dozen people who paid for Cleanly's pickup and drop-off service over the past month, as well as two former employees who recently cut ties with the company. The customers each told near-identical tales, backed up by the workers: Attracted by the company's desire to assist frontline health care workers during a crisis, well-meaning customers are signing up for the service, only to endure weeks of stress while searching the city for lost laundry. Some of the same people struggling to find their clothes are health care workers themselves—an unnecessary headache at the worst possible time.
"They're taking advantage of the situation," said Jason Meisel, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Brooklyn. "I shouldn't be needing a drink after this."
Do you know of a company behaving irresponsibly in the coronavirus era? Fill out this form, or reach out on Signal at 310-614-3752, and VICE will be in touch.
Not too long ago, Cleanly looked like a promising tech startup. In 2015, journalists marveled at the ingenuity of the founder, Tom Harari. Fast Company said Harari had "streamlined laundry delivery using smartphones." A Wall Street Journal reporter chronicled her experience shadowing a Cleanly concierge and witnessing the company's signature laundry process. Cleanly raised more than $7 million in funding before it merged with NextCleaners in late February and created a new company named ByNext, for which Harari will serve as chairman of the board.
Because of delays tied to the coronavirus, the two companies' branding remains separate for now. But Kam Saifi, the former CEO of NextCleaners and new CEO of ByNext, told VICE that he was enticed by Cleanly's app, which he described as the best in the business.
But Cleanly has not been able to keep up the same sterling reputation among its own customers and workers. The former staff members—Howard Kennedy and Denise Acosta, who both worked in the Cleanly fulfillment center—described an environment that had fallen into chaos behind the scenes, a mess only exacerbated by the coronavirus. Cleanly was already short-staffed, and many workers were inexperienced, they said. But the company had become overwhelmed by the increase in demand after the outbreak. Kennedy and Acosta said Cleanly did not have enough basic supplies, including necessities like laundry detergent and personal protective equipment like gloves and masks. (Saifi denied that Cleanly was ever low on critical supplies or PPE.) To make matters worse, the company had downsized its facilities at the end of March, moving into a space that could quite literally not hold the amount of laundry it was receiving.
"The health care ads were a bonus when I was choosing Cleanly. They were paying it forward. Good for them. Or so I thought."
Explaining the company's shortcomings, Saifi confirmed to VICE that the company had been overwhelmed by the number of orders they received as a result of the pandemic, but argued that the company was prioritizing health care workers' clothes.
"We were getting lots of calls from health workers from out of state, staying in hotels," Saifi said. "We added 6,000 new customers." He estimated that the company laundered 100,000 pounds of clothes in a typical week before the pandemic, but said that the total weekly amount more than doubled at the height of the pandemic.
Among the new customers was Meisel, the psychiatric nurse practitioner in Brooklyn, who stumbled upon Cleanly online. (Type "NYC laundry" into Google, and Cleanly is the first website that comes up.) He recognized that he didn't have many alternatives to get his laundry done with so many laundromats closed down—and he enjoyed the fact that Cleanly was "doing their part during the pandemic."
"I saw their advertisements, that they seemed to be trying to help health care workers, this and that," Meisel said. "I had actually gotten a promotional email about it, so I replied saying that I worked in health care. They told me to just schedule a pickup time. So that's what I did."
Cleanly picked up his laundry. But on the day the company planned to drop it off, Meisel received a text that the employee was on the way. Minutes later, though, he got an email notification informing him that his drop-off had been rescheduled for five days in the future. He called the number listed on Cleanly's website, which seemed to be suspended. He blasted out emails. He called Cleanly out on Twitter, and the same thing kept happening: Cleanly arranged the drop-offs, only to pause them at the last minute with a rotating set of excuses. Whenever Meisel did manage to get in touch with a Cleanly employee, they never seemed to know what had happened, he said.
After a week of little contact with the company, Meisel said that a man in an Uber showed up and placed his bag of laundry outside the front door of his building. He wasn't even sure if it was clean.
"They kept thanking me for my service, all that shit," Meisel said. "An employee called me, telling me, like, that she was from New York, and this was important to her. That I was important to her. Like, I don't care anymore. You're fucking thankful? You're stealing my clothes. On top of all that, you're stealing health care workers' clothes."
"I picked Cleanly almost explicitly because they seemed to be addressing COVID concerns. They seemed like a company that was taking the epidemic into account."
For more than a week, Philip Sieverding, an actor who lives in Brooklyn, had been thinking the same thing. For days on end, he had been engaged in a back-and-forth conversation with Cleanly's customer-service department over email, unable to reach a person on the phone. He was curious if his clothes were being held hostage, but no one could tell him where they were.
"I picked Cleanly almost explicitly because they seemed to be addressing COVID concerns," Sieverding said, adding that his local laundromat had also closed. "They seemed like a company that was taking the epidemic into account."
It had been a complete nightmare, he said. Cleanly had repeatedly pushed back his scheduled drop-off, and then, just as with Meisel, the company notified him that it would need ten days to find his laundry. Which, he then learned, was missing.
Sieverding assumed the worst when he received another message in his inbox, which had photographs attached. They were pictures of random piles of laundry, and he was expected to identify which were his, despite having already sent an email to Cleanly describing his clothes in detail. Somehow, he was actually able to do so.
"Thank you for the descriptions you have already provided, if you do think of any more details, let me know and I will add these details for our search team," the email reads. "I have attached photos below for your review, to see if any of these are your missing items."
Others, like Mars Hobrecker, a popular Brooklyn-based tattoo artist, weren't so lucky.
"The whole time, Cleanly is just aggressively pretending that everything is fine, sending out emails on how to manage stress and asking for donations for medical workers," Hobrecker said. "The health care ads were a bonus when I was choosing Cleanly. They were paying it forward. Good for them. Or so I thought."
Hobrecker is friends with Sieverding, though they were unaware that they both had used Cleanly until they spotted one another's frustrated comments on Cleanly's Instagram page. There, they planned to publicly escalate their situations, or at least share their ordeals so nobody else would make the mistake they had. And they weren't alone. In response to a Cleanly post about "providing clean clothes and scrubs to our health heroes," one user wrote, "You should be ashamed posting this comment. You have lost so many peoples laundry and are not responding." Another Cleanly post about pets led to increasingly outraged comments: "hi there you took 125 Lb of my laundry and only returned 20. WHERE IS THE REST OF MY LAUNDRY??" And another: "THE SAME THING HAPPENED TO MY FAMILY!!!"
"An employee called me, telling me, like, that she was from New York, and this was important to her. That I was important to her. Like, I don't care anymore. You're fucking thankful? You're stealing my clothes."
Hobrecker and Siverding both said that the Cleanly Instagram account appeared to be deleting all the negative comments it received. "I distinctly remember reading one comment from a woman that her husband was forced to wear the same pair of dirty scrubs for a week because they lost their laundry," Hobrecker said. "That comment was up for a bit. But the medical worker ones, from what I can tell, seem to have disappeared the fastest."
Saifi, the ByNext CEO, denied that anyone was deleting comments on the company's behalf. But he did forward a statement that said "ByNext reserves the right to remove or delete any and all comments we find to be abusive or harassing to a member of our staff or other customers, or in cases where personal identifiable information is shared by a user comment."
By April, the situation had reached a breaking point, and a group of customers, led by a disgruntled customer named Chelsea Larson, met one another on Cleanly's Instagram page and started a group chat. They were trying to lend one another clarity and somehow alert medical professionals. The one person helping them? Howard Kennedy, the former Cleanly employee. He had left the company a couple of weeks earlier to become something of a detergent vigilante and was now sliding into their DMs and giving them instructions on how to get their clothes back.
"I had an epiphany," Kennedy told VICE. "I had to do something. I have a voice. It's my right to start helping people out. I had never been on Cleanly's Instagram ever in my life. The customers, they didn't know what to do."
Following Kennedy's directions, some have actually managed to track down their stuff: It was being stashed behind a laundromat in Queens, in what several customers described as "an alleyway." They circulated photos of what they saw: jeans on the ground, rained-on shirts, and ripped bags.
Saifi described Kennedy as a rogue employee who was terminated for "performance issues" that included an unwillingness to search for lost clothing using a list of customers' names—a claim that Kennedy denied. (“That's totally untrue," Kennedy said.) Saifi also denied that Cleanly was ever storing current customers' clothes outside. He told VICE that the bins were not filled with customers' clothes, but were instead leftovers from Cleanly's move to the new facilities in March.
"We had nowhere to put everything," he said. "We were going to get a dumpster and throw everything out."
But the customers who trekked out to Queens to find their clothes said that wasn't the case. Hobrecker said it seemed like "everyone's stuff was outside" when he arrived at the laundromat. "It had been raining a lot, and my stuff was all wet, and it smelled of mildew. That was not the case when they picked it up," Hobrecker said.
"I sifted through garbage and unmarked laundry bins and customer bags for about an hour with a manager onsite until I was able to find all my bags," Larson said. "Everything was filthy, soaking wet, and frozen together from being outside for a week and a half."
Kennedy wasn't surprised by what the customers found. Leading up to his departure from Cleanly, he had noticed some signs that concerned him. Without enough bags, Cleanly was asking customers to provide their own. Workers then had to staple tags on them, and those often fell off. Without room to store and sort the clothing, much of that had to be done outside, Kennedy said. Workers organized clothes in bins, on tables, and on the ground. Without a sufficient number of barcodes, nobody was able to keep an accurate count of the inventory. Workers didn't know how much they had, let alone specifically what.
"I sifted through garbage and unmarked laundry bins and customer bags for about an hour with a manager onsite until I was able to find all my bags. Everything was filthy, soaking wet, and frozen together from being outside for a week and a half."
Blackstock didn't know any of this when she decided to join the service in late March. So when she was leaving the hospital a few days after she sent her clothes in, she was surprised to see a message pop up on her phone: It was from Cleanly, saying that her laundry would not be delivered that evening. The stated reason was an odd one: Nobody could find her clothes. That included most of her underwear, and most of her scrubs.
"I'm literally scared every day of getting coronavirus, and this added on a whole other level of stress," she said. "Especially in the middle of a pandemic, where everyone is super stressed. I just need my stuff to wear to work."
Cleanly didn't reimburse Blackstock at first. But eventually, the company decided to do so. All it took was Blackstock complaining on Twitter—to her more than 33,000 followers.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Alex Norcia on Twitter.