Diego Hernandez, 31, remembers what his job as a carwashero was like before he and his coworkers unionized in 2012. He earned roughly $300 a week for 80 to 90 hours of work at Sutphin Car Wash in Queens, New York. He risked being fired if he asked for a day off. And if an antenna broke or a car was accidentally damaged through a routine clean, he could forget about taking home any tips that day.
Car washes are among the most dangerous and exploitative places to work - employees often deal with hazardous chemicals and unguarded machinery - but organizers such as Hernandez have come a long way in their fight to clean them up. In New York City, carwasheros at about 10 shops have won union contracts with the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU) guaranteeing them higher pay and benefits. Hernandez says he now earns as much as $550 weekly and receives overtime, vacation and sick days.
In June 2015, car wash workers won a landmark battle to pass a local law regulating New York City's some 200 car washes, one of the most comprehensive of its kind nationwide.
The Car Wash Accountability Act was set to take effect the following December. Among other provisions, the new law requires car wash owners to obtain one-year licenses, for which they must provide proof of worker's compensation and unemployment insurance. The city can deny licenses to owners found guilty of wage theft or underpayment, or those who provide false data or information. Car washes must also keep a log of damage to cars and properly dispose of cleaning chemicals. Organizers say that these measures are a win-win-win for workers, consumers and the environment.
But now the law faces a final hurdle: a last-ditch lawsuit from the Association of Car Wash Owners. Car wash owners sued the city in October, claiming that it was creating a "two-tier" system that imposes greater restrictions on non-unionized shops, a violation of due process and equal protection rights. The lawsuit centers on a provision requiring owners to buy a surety bond to cover the costs of any fines or penalties it accrues. For non-unionized shops, the bond cost would range from $150,000 to $300,000. Unionized shops would pay only $30,000. Car-wash owners argue this provision gives illegal preference to unionized shops.
The suit has brought implementation of the new law to a screeching halt. As part of negotiations, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration agreed to hold off while the city's Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) produces new rules to govern the industry. The content of those rules will likely influence car wash owners' next moves. But it's not clear how long this process will take: Nick Paolucci, spokesperson from the New York Law Department, told In These Times in January that he could not confirm the release date of these new regulations.
Organizers are disheartened by this delay. WASH New York, a joint campaign of advocacy organizations Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, argues that implementing the law is critical to stopping widespread labor violations. Car wash workers, most of whom are immigrants, face unpredictable hours and are typically paid under the table in cash, according to a June 2015 report by the city's public advocate, Letitia James. As such, workers are vulnerable to wage theft and other illegal behavior: Of 28 car washes examined by the New York Department of Labor in 2008, more than three-fourths violated state minimum wage and overtime laws.
A 2012 report by WASH New York claimed that New York City car washes routinely refused to provide gloves, goggles and other protective equipment to employees using harsh shampoos and detergents. Most said they used exposed electrical machines, and few reported receiving any health insurance or compensation to cover on-the-job injuries.
Prior to the passage of the Car Wash Accountability Act, a number of settlements have drawn attention to such violations and won small improvements. In 2010, for example, the New York Department of Labor settled with Broadway Bridge Car Wash in Manhattan for $1.9 million for unpaid wages, overtime and tips. The settlement followed a DOL investigation of the car wash, where workers washed cars for 12 hours daily without overtime, earning only $3.75 an hour, three dollars short of the minimum wage at the time.
But as far as labor regulations go, car washes are still "the wild wild West," says Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York. "For many employers, it's just cheaper to break the law and run the minor risk of being caught, than it is to comply with the law and pay the legally mandated wages."
Ernesto Salazar, who immigrated from El Salvador in 2001, says that many carwasheros don't realize their rights are being violated. At age 41, Salazar is a 15-year veteran of the industry and has worked for three different locations of WCA/Rico Pobre Car Wash in the Bronx, earning as little as $3.50 an hour. He says his supervisors would tell him, "If you don't like it, there's the street."
Salazar and his co-workers unionized with RWDSU in October 2013, and now he works with WASH New York to help other workers recognize their rights and organize.
Steve Rotlevi, Association president, did not respond to inquiries for comment for this story. He told the New York Times in October 2015 that the law amounted to "pure legislative extortion and special interest politics at its worst."
Michael Cardozo, an attorney representing the Association in its suit, also did not respond to inquiries for comment.
Salazar views the suit as merely a stall tactic. "They are trying to continue exploiting people that are hardworking and humble," he says through an interpreter. "[Workers] don't know that after 10 and a half hours of work, they're entitled to some time off. They don't know that there are laws out there to protect them. Right now, they're in the shadows."