June 20, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Car wash owners fearing a looming crackdown on wage theft and other worker abuses citywide, are this week portraying themselves as struggling "mom & pop shops” just trying to keep their heads above a sea of government regulation and red tape.
Members of the recently-formed Association of Car Wash Owners, Inc. are especially aggrieved with a section of "The Car Wash Accountability Act" now working its way through the City Council that would require business owners to secure a $300,000 surety bond in order to operate within the five boroughs.
"The bond would put most of us out of business," executive board member Steve Bernard told the Committee on Civil Service and Labor on Thursday, June 19. "A lot of mom and pop shops are just getting by. We are not an industry of violators – we are good people."
Advocates for New York City's hard-pressed "car washeros," however, say that car wash owners head an industry with an "abysmal record of violating workers' rights," and are responsible for stealing millions of dollars from improperly paid workers each and every week.
"The car wash industry is in serious need of regulation," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU]. "Far too often, car wash workers are faced with poor and dangerous working conditions, stolen tips, no overtime pay – and sometimes – not even paid the minimum wage."
Over the last couple of years, the RWDSU has successfully organized eight car washes around the city and negotiated contracts at each of those locations.
"Before we joined the union, the owners were paying us $4 dollars per hour, which is well below the legal tipped minimum wage," said veteran car wash worker Refugio Denicia. "We were not compensated for overtime even though on average, we worked more than 40 hours per week."
Appelbaum called The Car Wash Accountability Act an "important step in the right direction," and said that a strong surety bond requirement is needed so owners are able to meet their "financial obligations" should they have to pay consumer damages, fines or judgements.
"Simply put, this law is helping to clean up one of New York City's dirtiest industries," Appelbaum said.
At $300,000, the surety bond outlined in the Car Wash Accountability Act would be three-times higher than the costliest bond the city presently requires of any industry. Car wash owners maintain that a $50,000 bond is more appropriate for their industry – and that without changes to Int. No. 124-A, many businesses are in jeopardy of closing, putting scores of workers like Denicia out of a job.
"If this legislation becomes law as drafted, not only will a significant percentage of law-abiding small business be forced to shut down, but thousands of mostly immigrant workers will lose their jobs," organization President Steve Rotlevi said.
The Association of Car Wash Owners has already paid lobbyists about $90,000 to push back against industry reform.
Rocio Valerio, a coordinator with New York Communities for Change – one of the groups along with Make the Road NY, that has been working with the RWDSU to successfully organize "car washeros" around the city – says that car wash owners "can't be both the oppressor and the victim."
"Even though we've strived for better conditions, we're still far from where we need to be," Valerio said.