Finally, justice for downstate car wash workers moves forward

Stuart Appelbaum | 6/13/2019, 11:29 a.m.
When the New York State Senate passed a bill amending the sub-minimum wage for car wash workers on June 5 ...
Car wash

When the New York State Senate passed a bill amending the sub-minimum wage for car wash workers on June 5 and the Assembly passed the same bill a day later, the state legislature sent a clear message to car wash employers that their workers in New York City, Westchester and Long Island should be paid at least the minimum wage.

Under current law car wash owners have been allowed to pay workers well below the minimum wage.  It’s a confusing and unjust system and has often led to wage theft in the industry.  The new law will be a revolutionary change for underpaid workers, too many of whom often suffer from wage theft, and are forced to struggle to survive in one of the nation’s most expensive places to live.  It’s a resounding victory for car wash workers, who have been fighting for their rights and better pay since 2012, when the RWDSU, Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change began working to reform an industry that was rife with exploitation.

The current system—which bases car wash minimum wages upon location, car wash size, and anticipated tips per employee—has created a confusing web of 8 different possible sub-minimum wages in New York.  That confusion often provides employers with an outrageous license to steal, and even well-meaning employers have sometimes run afoul of the law due to its complicated nature.

At labor board hearings held last year, officials and the public heard first-hand about the struggles workers affected by sub-minimum wages are experiencing. Workers have testified about their inability to live in dignity because they can’t afford decent housing for their families; and how they can’t look for other work because they cannot afford adequate transportation. Workers struggle with paying their bills and putting food on the table.

For the car wash workers in New York City—especially those without union representation—sub-minimum wages have been a vehicle for wage theft and systemic underpayment. Investigations have shown that employers don’t always make up the extra pay for workers when tips are short; and car wash workers don’t always receive the tips customers presume are going into their pockets.

The new law would take away one major opportunity for unscrupulous car wash owners to underpay their workers, and that’s important in an industry where operators have been fined and directed to make restitution for wage theft to the tune of millions of dollars.

Banning the so-called “tip credit” in the car wash industry downstate would help lift up 5,000 mostly immigrant car wash workers in New York. We applaud the state legislature and look forward to swift action by Governor Cuomo.

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Twitter: @sappelbaum. www.rwdsu.org