HOLLYWOOD/SANTA MONICA—On October 4, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior court against one of the state’s largest carwash owners, according to theCommunity-Labor-Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) Carwash Campaign.
The lawsuit seeks $6.6 million in penalties and unpaid wages for the workers of the carwash employees, reported to be mainly Hispanic who work for eight carwashes statewide. The car wash businesses are reported to be part of the Sikder Group of companies, which owns KOI, a notable restaurant that is often patronized by celebrities and has locations in Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York and Bangkok.
Two carwash businesses included in the lawsuit are two in Los Angeles County, Marina Car Wash in Venice and Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica. It is reported that employees in these businesses have experienced bouncing paychecks, dangerous working conditions and harassment by management. Additionally, an investigation revealed that the businesses were operating without proper licenses.
In 2008, 40 workers from Marina reportedly left from their employment positions at the business to hold a picketing protest in front of the carwash. Supported by the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, the employees made their concerns known to the public. Employees from both Bonus and Marina have reported difficulty in receiving payment for the work they had already performed, and that they had been given checks with insufficient funds as recent as February.
In a press release, Henry Huerta, the director of CLEAN Carwash Campaign, stated, “The CLEAN Carwash Campaign brought these violations to the attention of the Attorney General. We applaud the Attorney General for taking such strong action to right these injustices and recover monies owed to carwash workers and the state of California.”
Eduardo Tapia, an employee at Bonus, stated in the release, “For almost a year, the checks kept bouncing. We would take the checks to check cashing places but they bounced so frequently that they stopped cashing them and told us they could call the police on us because it was illegal.”
The Sikder Group is in charge of assents amounting at over $2 billion. Along with restaurant and carwash businesses, the company holdings include resorts, luxurious condominiums and a bank along with other significant establishments in the United States, Bangladesh, Singapore and Thailand. Addressing the Sidker Group’s massive asset control, Huerta questioned the acceptability of the company issuing “payroll checks to carwash workers that bounce.”
The CLEAN Carwash Campaign also reported other legal actions that previously been taken against Bonus and Marina carwashes. In 2007, 55 employees of Bonus received $100,000 in back wages after the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigated the treatment given to employees by the company. The investigation uncovered that the carwash staff, who worked as many as 10 hours in a day, were not paid overtime funds due to them and were sometimes paid less than the federal minimum wage.
The news release reports another statement recorded by union supporter Rogelio Herrera, a Marina worker who was terminated from the business after the carwash enacted a new speed-up regulation.
“My co-workers and I would be told to clock out at 6 p.m. but then [we] would have to keep washing cars off the clock until the last one was out of the carwash,” Herrera stated.
Employers further report experiencing hazardous work conditions at the Sikder Group-operated carwashes.
“When we clean the rims, the acid gets in our respiratory system and makes it hard to breathe,” Vinicio Morales, a former Marina employee, added. “I developed fungus on my hands and my hands swelled up. I believe it was from the chemicals.”
Assisted by CLEAN Carwash Campaign and its community partners, Vinicio and his fellow employees filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA, describing conditions that compromised and jeopardized their health and safety at Marina. Cal/OSHA then cited the carwash business $15,000 for violating health and safety policies in May, describing two of the violations as “serious,” including one for failing to provide employees with eye protection for handling corrosive substances. The violations were noted for creating a considerable hazard that could potentially lead to serious physical harm or death.
Juan Torrez, another former worker at Marina, reportedly left the carwash after suffering from a serious injury to his foot. “My foot was crushed by a car on the job at the carwash. I didn’t know anything about workers’ compensation and they never offered it to me or said anything about it,” he said.
In the news release, Huerta adds, “The conditions at Marina Car Wash are all too common in the carwash industry. We hope this action by the Attorney General causes employers who are operating illegally to appreciate that they cannot expect to violate workers’ rights with impunity.”
The CLEAN Carwash Campaign is a diverse coalition of non-profit organizations dedicated to improving the lives of working families in the greater Los Angeles area, and is supported by the United Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO and more than 130 community, faith and labor organizations of Los Angeles.
A statement at the CLEAN Carwash Campaign website reads:
CLEAN is committed to:
1) Supporting the right of carwash workers to organize a union and bargain collectively.
2) Improving working conditions and ensuring that carwash employees meet labor standards and abide by fair workplace practices.
3) Demanding environmental clean up to ensure that wastewater from carwashes does not contaminate our rivers or oceans.
For more information, visit cleancarwashla.org