My name is Refugio Denicia, and I have worked in the same car wash for over 15 years and talked with workers at car washes all over the city.
Wage theft in the car wash industry runs rampant, and I want to share my story as a victim of wage theft. Last November my co-workers and I decided to organize in order to better the conditions in the workplace and also because we knew we were being robbed. Before we voted to join the union, the owners were paying us $4 dollars per hour, which is well below the tipped minimum wage. To make matters worse, we were not compensated for overtime, even though on average we worked more than 40 hours per week. Often the owner would decide to close the shop without notifying us. We would show up expecting to work, but we were immediately sent home without pay although it is required to pay 4 hours. We were never paid spread of hours, despite the fact that most of us worked 12-hour shifts.
We tried talking to the owners about the money owed to us several times, but those conversations didn’t go far. We finally decided to consult with lawyers, but we found out that the owner had already been sued three years ago by three former workers. The judgment against the owner was of over $200,000, but those workers were never able to collect their money. The owner simply decided to ignore the judgment. My co-workers and I were advised against filing a lawsuit, as we found out the owner sold the car wash and nothing is under her name. She has essentially disappeared.
Car wash workers are continuous victims of wage theft. Currently, there isn’t any type of legislation to protect workers against owners like my previous boss. Wage theft will continue to be common practice if we don’t begin address this problem.
I want to say that even though we have not been able to sue the previous owner, since we started organizing our conditions at work have changed drastically. We can now make sure the owner is following the law, thanks to the protection of the union we have won a contract that gives us basic benefits, like annual salary increases, paid vacations and sick days, and more importantly, respect and dignity in the workplace.