Immigrant car workers file lawsuit against New Jersey car wash

Stephon Johnson | 8/15/2019, 12:29 p.m.
Eight immigrant car wash workers in New Jersey are taking their boss to court.
Car wash

Eight immigrant car wash workers in New Jersey are taking their boss to court.

This week, employees at the Caribbean Car Wash in Elizabeth, N.J. filed a lawsuit on behalf of themselves and other workers who were paid below minimum wage and not compensated for overtime work. The “carwasheros” worked either six or seven days a week, around 11 hours a day, for less than $5 an hour. 

The current minimum wage in New Jersey is $10 an hour and will increase by $1 each year until it reaches $15 in 2024. Earlier this month, a law signed by New Jersey State Lt. Gov. and Acting Gov. Sheila Oliver toughens penalties on employers who commit wage theft giving workers the chance to recover unpaid wages as far back as six years before the lawsuit.

“We must ensure that every hardworking individual in New Jersey receives the wages they worked hard to earn,” stated Oliver.

“Wage theft is immoral, intolerable and yet, far too common,” added New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg in a statement. “More often than not, it is those at the lowest rungs of our socioeconomic ladder that are taken advantage of by their employer. It falls on us, therefore, to defend those who don’t generally have the means to defend themselves.”

Under the old law, an employee could only collect back pay from two years before the lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, many workers don’t know their rights and are afraid of being fired if they speak up,” said attorney Steven Arenson, who represents the workers, in a statement Aug. 12. “The law protects workers who have been paid illegally, regardless of their immigration status, and New Jersey’s new law is designed to protect precisely the kind of low-wage, vulnerable workforce exploited in this case.”

Arenson and company hope to recover unpaid wages and unpaid overtime for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week owed to them under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law.

“This case represents another step in the fight against wage theft in the low-pay car wash industry,” stated Arenson.

In 2018, 106 car wash workers split an $8.5 million settlement after successfully suing to recover lost wages. And on another case Arenson worked on, it was revealed that many of those workers were paid $4 an hour for many years.

New Jersey’s neighbors to the east want to hold car wash employees accountable as well. In 2015, the New York City Council passed the Car Wash Accountability Act, which requires car wash owners to provide a $150,000 bond to ensure payment to workers in the event all required wages are not paid. This year, the New York State Assembly passed a bill eliminating the “tip-credit” by requiring car wash owners to pay workers minimum wage without allowance for tips.

Back in New Jersey, Roberto Sanchez, of Make The Road New Jersey, said no worker should fear an employer stealing his or her wages by not paying for overtime or below minimum wage.

“For too long, unscrupulous employers were rewarded by New Jersey state law,” stated Sanchez. “That stops today.”