It only takes a few minutes for New York City motorists to sweep through a carwash; it may take weeks for the guy wiping your hubcaps to see his first paycheck. That’s why the New York City Council just pushed through landmark legislation to revamp labor protections in one of the city’s least-regulated industries and pave the way for unionization.
The new licensing rules aim to prevent the wage theft that drives one of the classic little luxuries of urban life. Carwashes are known as a “runaway” industry (think nail-salon equivalent for car lovers) running on the exploitation of immigrant workers. The carwasheros campaign, supported by community groups and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and United Food and Commercial Workers, exposed the brutal labor conditions in a survey of local workers, which showed wages could run as low as $125 per week, “with some working as high as 105 hours.” The majority earned less than minimum wage and were often denied overtime. The murky tipped-wage system has allowed employers to pay a lower base wage and leave it to impoverished workers to earn the rest off of discretionary tips.
As with many service industries, unpredictable, erratic schedules mean that on any given workday a carwasher could be saddled with a 13-hour shift, or get sent home in the morning on the boss’s whim without the legally entitled compensation pay. Sometimes the job actually costs them money. Carwashero Rafael Ignizio testified before the City Council last year that while his wages started at just $3 an hour, “We also had to share our tips with the managers, the cashiers, and the assistant manager. We also had to pay out of our tips anything that was damaged or broken in the car wash, mirrors, antennas, anything really that was damaged.”
Ignizio and his co-workers were later thwarted when they tried to sue the boss for back wages: using a common tactic of evasion, “she just sold the car wash, erased everything from under her name, and technically disappeared.”
The new legislation establishes a licensing scheme requiring carwash operators to submit to city oversight on labor and environmental standards. They would also be subject to a “surety bond”—modeled on a recently passed law in California—to help guard against wage theft and keep bosses from vanishing in order to avoid paying legally owed backwages. The law complements the unions’ work by incorporating labor organizing into the regulatory regime.