cleaning up

Car Wash Workers on Track to Get Long-Awaited Pay Raise

Workers clean a car in Sunnyside, Queens, on June 5, 2019.
Workers clean a car in Sunnyside, Queens, on June 5, 2019. Photo: Hasani Gittens /THE CITY

City car wash workers are on the cusp of a guaranteed minimum wage, without the help of customer tips.

The state Senate passed a long-stalled bill Wednesday that would require car wash workers in New York City, Long Island and Westchester to be paid a minimum wage of up to $15 an hour.

Under current state law, car wash employees — like bartenders, waiters, nail salon workers and hair dressers — are considered tipped workers, with a base minimum of between $10.20 and $12.75 in New York City. The idea is that gratuities from customers get workers up to the full minimum wage, which will hit $15 an hour in the city by the end of the year

Employers are legally required to make up for their employees’ financial shortfalls when tips, plus base pay, fall shy of the minimum hourly wage — a practice that isn’t always followed, car wash workers say.

“Of course there was theft,” Patricio, a 45-year old car washer who lives in Elmhurst, told THE CITY in Spanish. He did not want his last name published.

“Car wash owners would take our tips to pad their salaries and that’s stealing, no? Sometimes they would take our tips to pay for things that went missing in cars or for damages. If the city gave the car wash a citation, that would also come from our tips,” he said.

“It’s not fair that we’re getting our tips taken away from us, because in reality it’s our money,” Patricio added. “We’re doing the work and putting in the effort so clients will give us that extra dollar that we then take home so we can put food on kids’ tables.”

‘The Whims of Good Tippers’

Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, said car wash workers across New York have long been underpaid and subject to the “whims of good tippers.”

Some car wash workers may see their base wages bumped up to $15/hour if bill is signed into law.
Some car wash workers may see their base wages bumped up to $15/hour if bill is signed into law. Photo: Hasani Gittens /THE CITY

“Wage theft is also rampant and many of these immigrant workers are exploited at the hands of a system that does not protect them,” Ramos added.

For years, the Democratic-dominated Assembly has repeatedly voted to approve the proposal to extend the full minimum wage to car wash workers, only to have to legislation stall in a Republican-led Senate. But the 2018 election shepherded in a Senate solidly in Democratic control for the first time in decades.

The Assembly is expected to pass the bill before the end of the legislative session in mid-June, a spokesperson for the chamber said.

Car wash industry representatives declined to comment. The New York State Car Wash Association, on its website, lists numerous potentially negative results of eliminating the tipped pay formula — including decreases in staffing and the closing of car washes.

The Association’s site also notes that any car wash that isn’t already fairly paying its workers is already subject to penalties.

Some car wash owners have been penalized for underpaying workers, including one $4 million dollar settlement with the state Attorney General’ in 2014.

To help ensure workers get paid, in an industry where owners sometimes pass car washes between different corporate entities, in 2015 the New York City Council passed a bill requiring car washes to obtain licenses and surety bonds. That law withstood an industry group’s lawsuit.

“The lack of enforcement and policing of our wage theft laws has really allowed sectors like car washes to adopt a business model of wage theft as a standard way of operating without any real fear of getting caught and punished,” said Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, which has advocated for car wash workers.

The state Department of Labor did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Dirty Practices at Some Businesses

Ramos said that in her district, which spans Corona to Astoria, as many as 300 workers stand to benefit from the new $15 wage guarantee.

Camilo, 53, an Astoria resident and longtime car wash worker, told THE CITY in Spanish that a wage guarantee would represent a “huge deal” for him and his family back home in Mexico. Over his decade of work in the industry, he’s had his wages stolen by his employer and seen his eyesight decline, he says, from daily chemical exposure without proper safeguards.

He said that his employer doesn’t supply safety goggles or masks and that coworkers who handle car shampoo suffer lung problems.

In an ideal week with dry weather and plenty of cars, he said he manages to bring home $100 in tips, in addition to a salary of about $370 a week, after taxes.

“There were times I really needed stuff for my family back in Mexico or to pay medical bills. But I was not making enough money to pay those bills,” said Camilo. He supports his wife and two college-age daughters, who all live in Mexico.

His employer, whom he declined to name, has been previously mired in lawsuits over wage theft claims.

“Obviously the system we have is bad and we’re glad that passing the legislation will finally pay the workers something that is reasonable and fair,” Camilo said.

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.