Standing in front of the Metro Car Wash in Rego Park, Queens, a few dozen car wash workers, union activists and a couple of New York City Council members are kicking off a campaign to organize workers and improve conditions at the almost 200 car washes across the city.
David de la Cruz Perez says this effort is necessary. He emigrated from Guatemala five years ago and he makes $5.50 an hour working at a car wash on Sutphin Boulevard in Queens. But, he says, managers raid the tip jar. Speaking through a translator from Make the Road New York, Perez explained, “From the tips they take out anything — if a mirror breaks, if an antenna breaks, they take it out from our tips.”
And Perez said, when he injured his hand on the job, he missed six months of work without pay.
Cristino Rojas, who works at LMC Car Wash in East Harlem, says there are other problems. Like the other workers, he speaks through a translator. “We work with really dangerous chemicals but they never give us protective gear. So we breathe these things, we touch these things, so we buy our own gloves and we buy our own masks because they don’t give any of that to us.”
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the problems “are industry-wide. It’s not just a couple of bad actors or isolated incidents.” His union helped produce a report about city car wash workers (pdf) that found 66 percent of workers reported being paid less than minimum wage at times. He added, “not a single interviewed car wash employee received paid sick days, and only one was offered any kind of health care plan.”
Councilman James Sanders Jr., who represents part of Queens, was at the rally. “We can have shiny cars and justice! We will not allow them to pin us and say ‘hey, if you want a clean car you have to accept dirty practices.’”
And those practices seem to be endemic. A New York State Department of Labor investigation that concluded in 2010 found that close to 80 percent of New York City’s car wash operators were guilty of wage and hour violations. A spokesperson for the NYS DOL said, “The Department continues to monitor labor law compliance in the car wash and all industries and conducts investigations as needed. We encourage employers and workers to contact the Department about wage and hour compliance and enforcement issues.”
But for some, convenience is key. Jose Maldonado is a 43-year old limo driver who was swinging by Metro Car Wash on the way to pick up a client at JFK Airport. “I mean I need to get my car washed…I don’t know what behavior I could change, I’ve got to go get my car washed.”
An attempt to speak to the manager of the Metro Car Wash in Rego Park was unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach a manager at LMC Car Wash in East Harlem. A call to the New York State Car Wash Association hasn’t been returned.
Councilman James Sanders says he’s planning a hearing on the issue.