At a carwash in an industrial district of Queens, NY, immigrants and other workers are preparing to open the next front in New York City’s labor battles.
Carwash employees are often paid him less than the minimum wage, and are routinely cheated out of overtime pay. Moreover, workers are not given protective gear even though they use caustic cleaners that burn their eyes and sinuses. Community organizers report that these kinds of wage and overtime violations are widespread among carwashes.
So during the past few weeks, and under the guidance of immigrant advocates, New York carwash employee Adan Nicolas has been briefing his co-workers in basic labor law and in the fundamentals of organizing. Away from bosses, similar conversations have been taking place at carwashes around New York City.
“We’re all ready to fight for our rights and have a dignified place to work, and not to be abused like we are today,” Mr. Nicolas said.
In the coming days a partnership of community and labor organizations plans to introduce a citywide campaign to reform the carwash industry. Union advocates hope to seize this momentum by unionizing carwash workers throughout the city.
“This is a real partnership between community organizations and organized labor to try to tackle these problematic working conditions,” said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group that is leading the coalition with New York Communities for Change, another advocacy group, and support from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
A related campaign in Los Angeles succeeded in collective bargaining agreements between several carwash companies and their workers.
Yet the New York campaign will be an uphill battle. About 1,600 carwash workers are scattered across 200+ locations, and many of those are under individual ownership. This means that each company would need to undergo a separate organizing effort. In addition, many workers are undocumented immigrants who may be reluctant to speak out for fear of being fired (wrongful termination) or being identified by immigration authorities.
Carwash managers and owners claim that they pay and treat their employees fairly, and have pledged to fight the unionizing effort. “We’re going by the law,” said the manager at Queensboro Car Wash in Long Island City, who declined to give his name.
This claim, however, is disputed by the organizing coalition (known as “Wash New York”), which interviewed 90 carwash workers from carwashes all around New York City, and learned that two-thirds reported to make less than the state-mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
A typical schedule for carwash workers is at least a 60-hour workweek; yet a majority receives no overtime pay as required by law when employees put in more than 40 hours. Those who did get overtime pay often earned far less than the required time-and-a-half rate. Moreover, rest breaks and lunches went unpaid or were extremely brief.
According to the labor organizers, not a single worker in the survey had received paid sick days, and only one reported that he had been offered a health plan.
Equally troubling is the lack of workplace safety. Most workers claimed that they are not given appropriate protective equipment or training for handling the caustic cleaning products used at carwashes. Some workers even use chemicals that burn holes through their clothing, the organizers said.
Mr. Nicolas admitted his misgivings about possible repercussions – including being fired – but he added that the effort was “worth it because we’re suffering so much injustice.”
Assessments of the industry by “Wash New York” strongly correspond to findings from a state investigation in 2008. That year, 60 state inspectors visited 84 carwashes in New York and reported $6.5 million in underpayments to 1,380 workers. The vast majority of New York City carwashes (up to 80%) had violated minimum wage and overtime laws. State labor commissioner Patricia Smith called the industry “a disgrace.”
That investigation resulted in millions of dollars in fines, litigation and promises of compliance by owners.
Then in 2010, the department announced a settlement of $2 million with the owners of an Upper Manhattan carwash that had failed to pay minimum and overtime wages.
Facing the recent rumbling of organization among workers, owners themselves are now mobilizing to resist the unionization effort. “We would never sign with the union,” said the manager at Whitestone Car Wash in Queens. “I like things the way they are.”
If you are involved in a wage or overtime dispute, contact a Seattle Employment Attorney at Emery Reddy. We also represent clients who need a Labor & Industries Attorney or Workers’ Compensation Lawyer.