Juan is a Chicago car wash worker. Describing his profession to an audience of workers, activists, press and clergy yesterday, he called his place of employment “an extremely abusive place to work,” and detailed his experiences with a bullying owner, working overtime without proper compensation and his employer’s tendency to keep all tips.
Like many in his industry, Juan’s voice is rarely heard. “People are worried that if they speak up, they will lose their employment,” said Alison Dickson Quesada, a labor education specialist at the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations. Quesada helped conduct a University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)-based study on the violations of workers’ rights in Chicago car washes. Titled “Clean Cars, Dirty Work,” [PDF] the study, headed by UIC labor professor Robert Bruno, found that the average car wash worker loses an annual $4,413.24 — about one-third of his yearly income — to wage theft.
The study’s findings suggest that the “bad apples,” as Bruno put it, were not the workers, 88 percent of who identified as Hispanic or Latino. Instead, the study implicates the car wash operators, which run an industry in which electrical hazards, dangerous chemicals and workplace violence were found to be the norm. These conditions, among others, left more than 40 percent of respondents with skin rashes and more than half with cuts received at work. Furthermore, more than 80 percent were not given protective equipment, a basic requirement that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) holds car wash companies responsible for providing.
“Literally, this job is killing (car wash workers) while (profiting) a large number of employers,” Bruno said. His study also strongly emphasized the wage disparities faced by car wash workers, finding that more than three-quarters of the workers surveyed earned below $8.25/hour — Illinois minimum wage — while 98.2 percent weren’t paid the legal overtime rate. Additionally, nearly 18 percent of workers were illegally forced to pay tips to their employer, and 13 percent earned less than $2 an hour. “Within our midst, we have an underclass living in poverty,” Bruno said.
These disparities can be explained by the payment system in place at car washes, where employers are allowed to reduce employees’ hourly rates to account for tips, so long as the total sum is $8.25 an hour. But that rate is only for workers who put in less than 40 hours. Should workers exceed that amount — which, according to the study’s findings, they often do — car washers rarely receive the time and a half rate that is legally required. This wage theft, along with others imposed, leave workers with an average hourly income of $6.59.
The study, conducted with the participation of 204 car washers from 57 car washes located throughout Chicago, suggests that the problems faced by workers are industry-wide rather than isolated. Referred to as “the most exploited and vulnerable” of workers by Quesada, 84 percent of the study’s participants had a middle school education or less, while 63 percent cannot speak English well.
This does not necessarily mean that every worker surveyed is an undocumented worker. The question was avoided when conducting the study, because presumably it might make respondents more hesitant to partake. The findings, however, did reveal that 84 percent of respondents were born outside of the United States.
“For the most part, people don’t have any idea of their rights as workers,” Quesada says. “These aren’t rights we are taught in school.”
Rudy Lozano Jr., a board member of Arise Chicago, an activist organization that builds partnerships to fight workplace injustice, labeled the situation facing car wash workers “atrocious.” Lozano went on to point out that it had been a victorious week for labor in the city (specifically, for the city’s teacher unions), suggesting that car wash workers had reason to be optimistic.
On September 20, Arise officially launched their Car Wash Worker Justice Campaign, which aims to help workers collect the wages they’ve lost to theft from employers. In other industries, Arise has recovered more than $4.6 million for individuals victimized by wage theft.
The campaign’s public release was meant to disclose “what’s happening in one of the worst industries of Chicago,” says Adam Kader, Arise’s program director. Kader says that Arise is currently active in four of Chicago’s car washes, and that the organization expects workers from two washes to be paid back a portion of their lost wages in the upcoming weeks.
Arise’s individual campaigns typically begin by helping an employee find the best way to approach their boss. What follows is a step-by-step process, beginning with a phone call from Arise. This phone call, says Kader, typically results in rejection, which then leads to a written request. If these methods fail to bring results, Arise then organizes a crowd to show up outside the business, ensuring that their efforts are noticed.
This process, however, is not without its risks to the employee. Kader says that Arise is up front about these risks, such as a loss of employment. Arise does have a legal advising board, comprised of what Kader calls some of the “best labor attorneys in Chicago,” some of who offer to defend the workers pro bono or who charge only if the case is won.
Arise’s overall goal, Kader says, is for industry-wide standards to be followed by all car wash owners. Specifically, this would provide minimum wage and tips for all workers. To make that a reality, Kader says, “we hope that workers will hear and come together.”