The Dirty Business of Cleaning Cars
Like most immigrants, Jose Oscar left his native El Salvador looking for a better life, a way to support his two children and aging parents. He didn’t expect America’s streets to be paved with gold and didn’t expect dollar bills to be hanging from trees. But he did expect to be given a chance to succeed.
“I imagined that Americans were a more compassionate people,” the 28-year-old begins. “I didn’t anticipate so much racism. Sometimes people look at me as if I’m from another planet. I work at a car wash in Brighton Beach and the clients, wow, you can feel the disdain in the way they look at you. Sometimes, if I miss a spot, they scream, ‘you fucking illegal.’ It’s always, ‘you fucking this, you fucking that.’”
Oscar has worked at Hi−Tek Car Wash & Lube for more than five years and is one of the leaders of a burgeoning movement to organize carwasheros—almost all of them male immigrants—for better pay, safer working conditions, and respect. So far, the movement has spread to more than 20 of the nearly 200 car cleaning businesses in the five boroughs, including two in Brooklyn.
The drive to organize carwasheros began in Los Angeles. The first union, at Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica, was formed in 2011 after a nearly three-year campaign. Part of the United Steelworkers, Bonus employees won formal grievance procedures, standardized application of wage and hour laws, and a two percent raise. Two other L.A. car washes have also unionized, kick-starting efforts to improve working conditions for carwasheros across the country.
Rocio Valerio is one of the key organizers of WASH New York, a project of New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York. “The L.A. campaign definitely served as an inspiration for us to do something locally,” she says. “We started discussions and began reaching out to car wash workers in September of last year, but it wasn’t until March that we launched the campaign publicly.”
It’s been a busy six months, with dozens of workers like Jose Oscar getting on board to agitate for an end to abuses that are endemic to the industry. To wit: WASH New York estimates that there are 5,000 carwasheros in the City, 80 percent of whom have been subject to wage theft by their employers. A recent survey conducted by the group found two-thirds receiving less than minimum wage, three-quarters receiving no overtime pay, and virtually no one receiving employer-provided health coverage—despite exposure to toxic chemicals with known health risks.
Sitting around a conference table at N.Y. Communities for Change, it takes a while for Jose Oscar and his 20-year-old co-worker, Pablo Alexander Valle Garcia, to open up about their workplace. Neither man speaks much English, and my Spanish is at best asi-asi, so Valerio translates.
Valle Garcia goes first. “On busy days we wash between 500 and 800 cars,” he says. “I used to work 60 to 84 hours a week, seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day. When I first started at Hi−Tek in 2008, I made $5 an hour, flat, plus tips. In 2010 it was raised to $5.50 and in January of this year it went up to $5.65. Until January we never got paid overtime. We don’t get paid holidays, vacation, or sick days. We rarely get more than a couple of minutes to eat lunch, have coffee or a snack. On a good day I get $30 in tips but most days I get only $10.”
“I have to make as much as I can,” he continues, explaining that he sends “everything” exclusive of money for rent and food to his family in El Salvador. He has younger siblings, he adds, and has to pay school fees so they can complete their studies.
It is obvious that Valle Garcia is not a complainer and is willing and eager to hunker down and work hard. Still, there are limits. “For my first year and a half at Hi Tek, I was in the back cleaning car rims with acid. When the cars pass through they’re very hot and when you put the acid on there is smoke, which you breathe in. I used to cough a lot when I worked in that area.”
Then there’s something Valle Garcia calls “jabon negro,” black soap. “When it splashed on our skin it caused burns,” he says. “The owner switched soaps after several clients complained that it altered the color of their rims. When the workers complained he ignored it, but when customers complained he finally made a change to green soap. The jabon verde burns less, but it still stings. We have never been trained in how to use it safely and have never been given safety gear like gloves or goggles.”
And that jabon negro y verde? Most likely it contains hydrofluoric acid or ammonium biflouride, the chemicals most commonly found in car-cleaning materials. According to the Centers for Disease Control, both are carcinogens and can cause kidney and pulmonary damage and nasal and eye irritation. In addition, waste runoff typically enters drains and subsequently pollutes local waterways, putting not only carwasheros, but also entire communities, in danger.
As Jose Oscar listens to Valle Garcia, he periodically nods his head in agreement, but he becomes visibly agitated when Valle Garcia ticks off the health and safety violations he and his coworkers have experienced. “We’re tired of what we’ve been living at the car wash,” he interjects. “Gary Pinkus, the owner of Hi−Tek, talks to us as if we’re slaves. Slavery is over. Justice exists. What motivates me to organize is what I’ve lived. Two winters ago the former manager made us shovel snow at his house and at his neighbor’s house and didn’t even offer us a glass of water. He’s old and has been ill so hasn’t been around much for the past month or so, but when he’s there he screams at us, calls us bad names and curses at us. He and the owner insist that we do things we’re not trained to do, like clean the well where all the toxic chemicals collect. We do this without protection on our hands or feet. It smells so disgusting, so terrible,” he says, his tone becoming more and more plaintive.
Then, suddenly, the two men are talking over one another, laughing like kids who know they’ve done something dangerous and are lucky to have lived to tell the tale. “It’s like the management challenged us to organize,” Oscar says. “I’d complain and the manager would look at me and say, ‘Yeah, but you don’t have the guts to do anything about it.’”
“Si, si, si, it was the challenge,” Valle Garcia agrees, “definitely, more than anything.”
That challenge led 17 Hi−Tek staffers to file a federal lawsuit against the company in late June. The suit demands that Pinkus make restitution for unpaid overtime wages and stolen tips. Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, explains that workers who receive tips can be paid less than minimum wage as long as the hourly total equals the minimum, but after 40 hours they must be paid time and a half, or at least $9.28 an hour. This rarely happens, the workers report, their voices rising in indignation.
“One of the other big issues is that we have to pay for any damage to the cars out of our own pocket,” Valle Garcia says. “The owner’s insurance should pay for this. Things break. Accidents happen. Sometimes when you brush a tire the valve falls off. Sometimes windshield wipers fall apart. Sometimes ashtrays come loose. When you work at the speed Gary insists on, things go wrong. We should not have to pay for this.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, both Oscar and Valle Garcia report that some things at Hi−Tek have improved. At the same time they charge that Pinkus has retaliated against them. “There is a little more respect now,” Oscar says. “The managers no longer behave as if they can do or say anything they want. But they’ve cut our hours so we now work 40-45 hours a week, tops. Rather than pay us overtime, he’s hired new workers, most of them from Eastern Europe, so we can’t communicate easily.”
Still, both workplace leaders believe that Pinkus—and much of the Brighton Beach community in which Hi−Tek is located—know that their demands are reasonable. “We have a lot of community support. People tell us that they’ve called Gary to demand that he treat us better,” Oscar says. “We’ve also heard people say that they won’t get their car cleaned at Hi−Tek until we have a contract. This is about being treated fairly. Our work should make it possible for us to support ourselves and our families. We want reliable schedules, overtime pay, paid holidays and vacation, sick days, medical insurance—the things everyone who works hard deserves.”
He, Valle Garcia, and the 32 others employed at Hi−Tek look forward to affiliating with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers, U.F.C.W., once they win their unionization drive.
Gary Pinkus did not respond to the Rail’s attempts to reach him for comment.
For more information on WASH New York, go to www.washnewyork.org or call 212.684.5300.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader