New York Car Wash Workers Seek Unionization Due to Wage-and-Hour Issues

Workers in every sector of New York City's economy have legal rights that provide powerful protections, from the Construction Industry Fair Play Act to wage-and-hour claims under state and federal law. Whether workers are underpaid, discriminated against, harassed or subjected to unfair conditions or hostile work environments, they often seek assistance from NYC wage theft claims lawyers to assert their rights against employers.

Another important means for garment workers, trades people, restaurant/hospitality workers and others to protect their rights is by gaining the collective bargaining power of unionization. A new group, WASH New York (Workers Aligned for a Sustainable and Healthy New York), recently announced plans to organize for fair working conditions for New York City car wash workers.

At a recent rally in Queens, workers from car washes across the city held signs with such messages as "We Demand a Living Wage Now" and "We Want Our Back Pay! Wage Theft Is Illegal." Many claimed that they are paid only $5.50 per hour, nearly 25 percent below New York's state-mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Workers Allege Worker Mistreatment by Car Wash Owners

New York City's estimated 1,600 car wash workers, many of whom are immigrants, work at over 200 sites around the 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," car wash worker and WASH activist Adan Nicolas recently told The New York Times.

Workers have complained of employers refusing overtime pay despite 60-hour work weeks, abusive treatment that focuses on their Hispanic background, unpaid rest breaks, insufficient lunch breaks and unsafe working conditions due to exposure to caustic chemicals without protective equipment. According to a 2008 investigation by the New York State Department of Labor, nearly four out of five New York City car washes had violated laws that govern overtime and minimum wage levels.

Due to that investigation, one NYC car wash was assessed fines of nearly $2 million for violations over a five-year period. According to the investigation, the employer failed to pay overtime despite 72-hour work weeks and disguised its illegal actions by paying employees in cash.

In a recent development, the New York Attorney General's Office has subpoenaed records from LMC Car Wash based on allegations of wage-and-hour violations. The investigation involves ten of the 21 car washes across the city owned by LMC. A federal lawsuit against the company a few years ago resulted in settlement that provided over $3 million in back pay and other damages to some of LMC's workers.

Helping Workers Fight Illegal Employment Practices

WASH New York is working with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and worker advocacy groups to ensure better conditions in the future. Car wash workers who have alleged retaliation by some car washes after they have complained of conditions have targeted those locations with group protests intended to confront management about the need to end abuses.

Every worker should also be aware of his or her rights under existing state and federal wage and labor laws. New York City wage theft lawyers can explain how a range of relevant statutes are enforced, both by government investigations and in individual and class action lawsuits by affected workers.

Employers can be required to change conditions and compensate employees for many different employment law violations, including:

  • Unlawful deductions from pay
  • Misclassification of workers as contractors to avoid paying benefits
  • Misclassification of exempt (hourly) workers as nonexempt (salaried) workers to avoid paying overtime
  • Violations of prevailing wage statutes
  • Failure to reimburse expenses
  • Making employees work off the clock

In addition to violations of employment laws, employees may have many other reasons to consult with an attorney. From workers' compensation and Social Security disability benefits applications to workplace injury claims for job site accidents or toxic exposure, workers have many potent options for asserting and protecting their financial well-being.

In the broadest sense, an "injury" to a worker can include anything from wage exploitation to chronic conditions such as carpel tunnel syndrome and catastrophic medical conditions such as paralysis or traumatic brain injuries (TBI) caused by physical trauma. In all of these cases, the final goal is the same: holding negligent or unethical employers accountable for the harm they cause.