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Schneiderman takes car wash to court over wage theft

Stephon Johnson | 2/1/2018, 10:13 a.m.
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is taking the owners of a Brooklyn-based car wash to court over accusations ...
Eric Schneiderman

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is taking the owners of a Brooklyn-based car wash to court over accusations of wage theft.

Last week, Schneiderman filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court, Kings County, against the Tropical Breeze Car Wash managers Philip Gmuer and Gregory Gmuer, owner Benno Gmuer and U.S. Auto Wash, L.L.C., which does business as Tropical Breeze Car Wash. They’re accused of cheating more than 150 of their minimum wage car wash workers out of $500,000 in wages and more than $30,000 in benefits. Schneiderman also said that the company didn’t pay its proper share of workers’ compensation contributions and unemployment insurance as well. He’s seeking close to $1.6 million in damages.

Schneiderman said that Tropical Breeze Car Wash took as much from their employees as they possibly could.

“We’re taking them to court and seeking to recover every penny of unpaid wages for these workers, plus damages and penalties for the company’s egregious conduct,” said Schneiderman in a statement. “Unscrupulous employers should hear our message loud and clear: if you exploit workers, we will see you in court—and make sure that you pay every worker every dollar they’re owed.”

Schneiderman also accused Tropical Breeze of maintaining deficient employee records and illegally managing the payroll system for “on-the-books” and “off-the-books” employees. Off-the-books employees make up a majority of the car wash’s staff. The attorney general said Tropical Breeze didn’t provide its employees information about their rate of pay, wage notices and payment statements.

Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum spoke of the display of strength showed by car wash employees and how important it was to have people in government in your corner.

“I think the possible message sent here is that employers need to think twice about what it is they have been doing,” said Appelbaum. “Exploiting these workers will no longer be tolerated.”

Schneiderman also accused Tropical Breeze of filing documents in the state that underreported its employee count and payroll expenditures to avoid paying full unemployment insurance contributions and workers’ compensation premiums.

The RWDSU and the attorney general have worked with car wash workers in their fight to unionize. In 2017, a year after Schneiderman won a $1.65 million settlement for workers at Soft Touch Car Wash in Inwood, Manhattan, after wage theft accusations there, the business closed. But money isn’t the only issue. Appelbaum said that the current political climate for car wash workers makes their plight tougher and their actions braver than people realize.

“For immigrant workers whose documented status may be questioned, they understand that they’re taking a risk when they stand up,” Appelbaum explained. “We have been told of one supervisor, not at this car wash, who came to work one day wearing an ICE cap to send a message to the workers that they should not question what he does.”

Appelbaum continued, “We want to support them in every way we can. I think what they’re doing is an inspiration. You cannot allow yourselves to be exploited regardless of your immigration status.”