Arise Chicago led a picket line at the Little Village Car Wash Tuesday afternoon demanding the return of stolen wages to former employees. For eleven years, Carlos Ruiz worked at the car wash earning below state and federal minimum wage standards. Ruiz and Arise Chicago started working together when the organization first learned of his salary this past summer.
“Sadly, wage theft is a well-known practice in many low-wage industries. But we’ve found an unparalleled level of exploitation in the car wash industry throughout Chicago,” said Micah Uetricht, an organizer with Arise Chicago. “Wages far below the minimum, no payment of overtime, nonexistent health and safety precautions like personal protective equipment or training on the use of chemicals—conditions in Chicago’s car washes are hyper-exploitative.”
For his first five years of employment at the car wash, Ruiz operated machinery before losing half of his right thumb in an accident. Ruiz claims the owner of the car wash paid him a fixed weekly amount with no overtime in those five years.
“I stayed at the car wash because I didn’t have any other options,” said Ruiz in a statement. “I had to support my family, and I didn’t know what my rights were.”
Following the accident, he began washing cars by hand, earning only tips. On a good day he would work 12 hours and bring home between $40 to $50. Employers are required by law to properly compensate tipped employees if they fail to earn minimum wage. In the State of Illinois, the minimum wage sits at $8.25 per hour leaving Ruiz, and possibly other employees, short half his salary.
“Our apartment is in bad condition but it is the only thing we can afford,” said Ruiz through a translator. The father of four now works in construction, but wants to see other car wash workers stand up for their rights.
Ruiz’s plight is not a lone incident. Martin Montoya served as a car washer for a year and a half at the same business. Montoya worked 12-hour shifts earning just $40 to $45 on a busy day.
“If the weather was bad or no cars came in we didn’t get anything,” said Montoya.
Organizers for Arise Chicago made multiple attempts prior to the day’s action to contact the owner of the car wash. Calls and letters were not returned. The owner was not present yesterday and the manager refused to call him, according to Arise Chicago. The organization is working with Ruiz and Montoya to determine the next steps in reclaiming their stolen wages.
The action is part of a weeklong, nationwide effort, by Interfaith Worker Justice to draw attention to the growing impact of wage theft. Later this week, McCormick Theological Seminary will host a wage theft panel and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters plans to hold a research action event at the Department of Labor to highlight the problem in local businesses.
A 2010 study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago found severe workplace safety violations and wage theft in low-wage industries. More than one-third of workers filing a complaint experienced at least one form of illegal retaliation by a supervisor or employer. Just nine percent of worker’s hurt on the job filed a workers’ compensation claim. One in four people said they were paid below minimum wage and often by more than a dollar an hour.
A call placed to the owner of Little Village Car Wash was not returned.