New law brings order and oversight to car-wash industry

Stuart Appelbaum | 6/25/2015, 10:37 a.m.
New York City’s car wash industry has long operated as if it has been doing business in the Wild West, ...
Car wash

New York City’s car wash industry has long operated as if it has been doing business in the Wild West, with a history of wage and hour violations and exploiting workers. For years, the city’s car washes have handled millions of dollars of consumer property annually and disposed of potentially harmful chemicals and wastewater with less government oversight than a neighborhood laundromat.

Finally, that’s about to change.

Wednesday, June 10, the New York City Council passed the Car Wash Accountability Act, which for the first time gives the city regulatory power over the car wash industry. The law requires car washes in New York City to obtain licenses to do business, to obey environmental guidelines and to obtain a bond to protect workers and consumers.

For car wash workers in New York, including the hundreds of courageous “carwasheros” who have won a union voice with the RWDSU over the past three years, it marks a historic reform. The legislation will protect employees by requiring that their employers hold bonds that ensure they can repay workers in the event of wage and hour violations, and it will protect communities and make workplaces safer, thanks to environmental guidelines. The bonds will also protect consumers by ensuring they’ll get paid in the event of damages to their vehicles.

Under the law, car washes with an effective worksite monitoring system to prevent the theft of workers’ wages can purchase a cheaper bond than those without one. The best way for them to do this is through union representation. A union provides monitoring and a grievance procedure and empowers workers by providing oversight and protecting them from wage theft. With a union in place to ensure workers are being treated fairly—and that wage and hour settlements and fines are unlikely—a cheaper bond makes sense.

The New York City Council, including the bill’s sponsor, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, are standing up for workers, communities and consumers in passing the bill. And we thank Mayor Bill de Blasio for supporting reform of New York City’s car wash industry.

During City Council hearings, car wash workers described their experiences of stolen wages and poor working conditions, and spoke about the harsh chemicals they work with. They cited instances in which untreated wastewater may have been allowed to enter city streets and sewers.

Consumers have also been put at risk by the lack of oversight. Without proper regulations or surety bonds, customers have had no means of recourse if their vehicles were damaged—or even stolen —while on the premises.

Working together with New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York, the RWDSU has succeeded in bringing union contracts to workers at nine New York City car washes and proved that low-wage jobs can be made better. And with the passage of the Car Wash Accountability Act, we’ve seen how grassroots action such as the car wash campaign do more than help workers at unionized facilities. We can reform an entire industry and improve the lives of thousands of workers.