This April, the Progressive States Network named New York a national leader in the fight against wage theft, thanks to the strong new protections for workers included in New York’s Wage Theft Prevention Act. MRNY drafted and led the campaign to pass the Wage Theft Prevention Act (WTPA) in 2010.
Now, we have formed a unique and powerful collaboration, WASH New York, with New York Communities for Change and with support from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The new partnership is using the protections afforded under the WTPA to organize workers in New York City’s notoriously exploitative car wash industry to stand up for their rights and win dignity and fair treatment in their workplaces.
Car washes are big business in NYC. Every day, hundreds of thousands of taxis, livery cabs, and privately owned cars traverse hundreds of miles of the city’s roadways and the 1,600 employees of nearly 200 car washes citywide are on the job to clean them up. But in the city’s car wash industry, it’s not just the cars that are filthy – it’s also the labor practices.
Recent investigations by the New York State Department of Labor found that close to 80 percent of the city’s car wash operators are guilty of wage and hour violations. WASH New York also conducted in-depth interviews with 89 car wash workers over several months at 29 different car wash facilities and released a report revealing widespread mistreatment.
The numbers are striking: Two-thirds of the workers interviewed reported being paid less than the legal minimum wage, and only five of the workers reported that they were paid enough in tips to reach the $7.25 mandatory minimum wage mark. Seventy-one percent of workers were on the job for at least 60 hours a week, with some working as many as 105 hours, but three-quarters of workers didn’t receive any kind of overtime pay. When they were paid overtime, it was frequently less than the legally required time-and-a-half.
The working environment for car wash employees was also revealed to be hazardous. Workers reported being continually exposed to dangerous cleaning and degreasing chemicals that made their lungs, skin and eyes burn, as well as working around unstable machinery and poorly protected electrical sources close to water. Not a single interviewed employee received paid sick days, and only one was offered any kind of health care plan.
Our work to elevate the voices of vulnerable car wash workers, who frequently face retaliation if they stand up for their rights, has helped to identify and put pressure on many of the worst offenders among car wash owners, including the car wash kingpin John Lage, who owns the LMC Car Wash chain. Our work has prompted a formal investigation by the State Attorney General of LMC’s regular underpayment of workers’ wages. Employees at LMC Sutphin Car Wash in Jamaica, Queens were victorious when, after management retaliated against employees who complained by slashing their hours, our campaign successfully pressured the owners to restore the affected workers’ hours.
The campaign has also garnered attention from City officials, including the four top mayoral candidates and, in particular, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio who has called on the City to cancel $170,000 worth of contracts with Lage. Taxi and black car driver union, representing tens of thousands of members in NYC, have also pledged to boycott car washes that break the law. In May, the City Council introduced legislation to increase accountability for car wash owners and clean up the industry.
Workers citywide are now ready to fight for their rights. Having formed a steering committee representing dozens of car washes from all over the city, workers are standing up to demand a decent salary, protection from hazardous chemicals, the opportunity to earn paid sick days and receive health care, job stability and an end to unjustified firings and other forms of management retaliation.
After leading actions at car washes in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, the campaign is now moving into the Bronx, where workers are bringing a federal lawsuit against the management of Xcellent Car Wash in Fordham for wage and safety violations. We are confident that the courts and the city will do the right thing and defend the rights of the workers.
This campaign is not just about car washes, but about the kind of city that we, as New Yorkers, aspire to be.
To learn more about WASH New York, visit our campaign website: www.washnewyork.org