It is a never ending New York story: Rich business owners shamelessly stealing wages and tips from workers who can barely scrape out a living.
Owners, of course, are counting on the silence of workers — many of them immigrants — fearful of losing their jobs.
But car wash workers, fed up with being exploited, have courageously broken the silence.
“We have to assert our rights as workers,” said Nelson Hernández [a member of Make The Road New York], 21, who hails from Mexico.
Hernández is part of WASH New York, a group that is spearheading a campaign to bring fair conditions to the car wash industry, where labor violations are routine.
The group is a coalition of workers, community leaders, elected officials and union members organized by Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, with the help of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
A survey conducted by coalition found more than 75% of the car wash workers reported getting no overtime pay, even if they worked more than 100 hours a week. None had paid sick days, and only one was offered an employer-sponsored health plan.
WASH New York has plenty to do as the case of Hernández, which is similar to hundreds of other car wash workers, makes clear.
After three years working at LMC car wash in Astoria, Hernández, makes $5.50 an hour, $1.75 less than the legal minimum wage. Supposedly, workers reach the legal salary with tips, but as Hernández said, it doesn’t work that way.
“You never know how much you are going to get in any given day,” he said. “It could be $5 or it could be $20. Yet we had to sign a paper agreeing to that arrangement.”
Asked about overtime, Hernández, who said he puts in an average of 60 hours per week, reacted as if it was a foolish question.
“Overtime? Forget it,” he said. “The bosses tell us ‘that’s not for you’ because we are immigrants and many of us have no papers.”
“You know what his means? It means that the owner has found a group of people he can exploit and nobody can do anything about it,” said RWDSU’s president Stuart Appelbaum. “That’s why unions are important.”
Last Thursday, a group of workers confronted managers at the Sutphin Car Wash in Jamaica, Queens.
Sutphin is part of a chain of car washes operated by Fernando Magalhaes, who was subpoenaed earlier this month by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for wage and hour violations, and unsafe working conditions.
Some of the workers at Suthpin and other car washes around the city have been subjected to retaliation — reduced hours and verbal threats — in the past week, said Hilary Klein, of Make the Road New York.
“This is a workforce that has been overlooked, others like security guards and janitors are more public,” said Jon Kest, director of New York Communities for Change (NYCC). “They work outside the mainstream, people don’t understand what goes on in the industry. They can be abused.”
But workers are not taking it any more.
“There are about 800 workers from more than 20 car washes involved with the campaign,” Hernández said. “We make decisions together. And we think joining the union is important.”
Their demands are fair.
“We are asking for higher wages, and for management to stop robbing us of our tips,” said Hernández who clarified that tip robbery doesn’t go on at his workplace.
“We want a reasonable work schedule and the proper protective gear — masks, gloves, etc.,” he added.
Without a doubt these workers are making a strong — and risky — public statement.
“But as more people understand what is going on in the industry, things will change. Public exposure will change the industry,” Appelbaum said.
“We are going to win,” Hernández said.
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