NEW YORK -- The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is launching a campaign to bring workers' rights - including the right to organize - to some 5,000 car wash workers in New York City, following a devastating report on wages and working conditions those employees toil under.
The report, released March 7 by Workers Aligned for a Sustainable and Healthy New York (WASH NEW YORK), paints a picture of erratic hours, low pay, lack of protective equipment, and no workers' rights for employees, most of them minority group members.
"It's not a few bad apples, it's citywide," RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told a press conference, after a demonstration by more than 100 car wash workers, outside a car wash in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens.
Conditions are so bad, the report adds, that the New York Labor Department won a $1.3 million settlement in 2010 from the Broadway Bridge Car Wash in Upper Manhattan for unpaid wages, overtime and tips it owed its workers from 2003-2008.
If the New York car wash workers organize, they would be the second such large group of car wash workers to do so. The Steelworkers organized the "carwasheros" in several washes in Los Angeles, following similar cases of wage theft there.
Appelbaum, New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez and several prominent local politicians campaigned for the city car wash workers at the press conference.
Appelbaum particularly praised the New York car wash workers for standing up for their rights despite their fears of employer retaliation. Alvarez said the central labor council would support the workers every step of the way.
Key points in the report, Dirty Business, based on interviews with 89 workers at 29 different car washes citywide, include:
Over 71 percent of the workers toiled at least 60 hours a week, with five percent working 81-105 hours weekly. But three-fourths of the workers didn't receive any overtime pay for hours in excess of 40. When they did, "it was often less than the legally mandated rate of time-and-a-half," the report said.
"The state's minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, but 66 percent of workers reported being paid less than that at times." The report says that "scheduling, hours, and pay are subject to the whims of management, and especially, the weather. Workers have no idea how many hours they'll be working a week or how many hours they'll be paid."
Exposure to workplace hazards, especially hazardous chemical compounds, is routine, and only 23 percent of car washes provided workers with protective equipment. Only three workers of the 89 reported being trained in handling hazardous chemicals.
Raul, a Mexican immigrant who declined to give his last name for fear of management retaliation, said he had "inadequate protective equipment" when scrubbing cars by hand after they were soaped. "This was a special kind of soap used to clean cars and contained acids used to clean the tire rims. I could tell how strong the soap was because it made the hair on my legs fall off," he added.
"One day, soap fell on my ear. A few hours later it began to itch and burn and then became inflamed. I didn't say anything at the time, because I didn't know there were laws to protect me, as an immigrant, and I was also afraid I would lose my job."
Rest breaks are minimal to non-existent. Eleven of the 89 workers reported getting no lunch breaks at all, and 40 percent reported getting 15 minutes or less for lunch.
All the workers, including managers who do little to no work, split the tips. If machinery damages cars, the cost - often considerable - is deducted from the workers' already low pay.
The report recommended several moves to improve the lot of car wash workers, including regular, even yearly, state and city inspections of conditions at the car washes and stronger enforcement of existing labor laws against car wash owners. It also recommended the city adopt "best practices" standards for the car washes.
And it said the workers must have the right to organize.
"Make it easier to exercise the right to join a union and organize your workplace without fear of intimidation or retaliation-the very fear that, according to car wash workers like Nelson Hernandez, is often part of the job," the report said.
"We have been threatened many times if we fight for our rights, so for a long time I didn't do anything to stand up for myself. But I know that if we unite, we can make sure our rights are respected," Hernandez told investigators.
Photo: WASH New York campaign launch.