Quick Hit Steven Ross Johnson Monday September 24th, 2012, 12:35pm

Study Shows Deplorable Conditions, Wage Theft In Chicago Car Wash Industry Fueling Push For Unionization (VIDEO)

Worker-rights advocates are calling on Chicago car wash owners to clean up their act when it comes to providing a fair wage to their workers, following the findings of a University of Illinois study that found incidents involving wage theft and hazardous working conditions appear to be a systemic problem within the industry throughout the area.

The study found that more than 75 percent of car wash workers received hourly pay that was below the state’s minimum wage of $8.25, resulting in an average annual loss of $4,413 per worker and a total combined yearly loss of about $2.5 million.  

According to the report, a survey involving 204 car wash workers at 57 establishments was conducted between January and June of this year, representing about one-third of the number of city car wash employees and 70 percent of all local full-service businesses.

Study author and University of Illinois Professor Robert Bruno reports that although more than 80 percent of workers interviewed said they worked over 40 hours in a week, the study found less than 2 percent received the legal overtime pay of time-and-half.

“It should come as no surprise to you that all of this wage theft and abuse creates impoverished living conditions,” said Bruno, who also serves as director of the Labor Education Program at the university’s School of Labor and Employment Relations. “Despite the fact that most of these car wash workers are supporting multiple dependents, over 97 percent of all the surveyed workers earn below the federal poverty level for a family of four and below the level considered to represent a living wage in Chicago.”

According to car wash worker Oscar Olivares, the conditions he has endured while working at Little Village Car Wash on the city’s West Side is indicative of the kind of treatment a lot of workers receive at the hands of employers.  

“The owner [was] very abusive,” Olivares said, speaking through an interpreter at a press conference held Thursday. “There is no payment, I only get tips. He makes us work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.”

Here is more from Olivares, the head of the United Steel Workers union District 7, and the Chicago Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board Peter Sung Ohr. 

The study was conducted at the behest of labor-rights group Arise Chicago, which said they had received a number of complaints involving wage theft over the past year at several car washes and sought a broader look at conditions throughout the entire industry.

The group has launched a citywide campaign to organize the city’s estimated 600 car wash workers, a move similar to campaigns that have been conducted in Los Angeles and New York.

The effort is being joined by the United Steel Workers union District 7, which is helping workers with the organizing process. Though the two industries are vastly different, as USW District 7 Director Jim Robinson explained, a number of commonalities can be found when comparing the treatment many car wash workers receive at the hands of their employers with the experiences steel workers went through during the early stages of forming their own union.    

“We understand that workers’ rights are the foundation of building sustainable, good-paying, family-supporting jobs,” Robinson said. “The car wash industry in Chicago, like in Los Angeles, is very much akin to those old basic industries of the 1930s, an industry of immigrants, of low pay, and dangerous working conditions. It’s an industry that we want, and that we cannot accept as is.”  

The study pointed out that a vast majority of those surveyed, around 84 percent, were immigrants and had the equivalency of a middle school education or less. Almost 70 percent of participants said they either spoke English “not well” or “not at all”. Such factors play a big role in why incidents of wage theft and abuse go unreported, according to the report.

It is a problem that has made it difficult for his agency to act, according to National Labor Relations Board Chicago Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr.

“Unfortunately the way that the law is written, our agency cannot self-prosecute, self-charge allegations, we have to wait until somebody comes to our door,” Ohr said. “But I assure you once charges are filed, we will fully investigate and prosecute the violation.” He added that community groups such as ARISE have been essential in bringing cases of work-related violations to light.

Moving forward, Robinson said he was unsure as to how long it would take to get a union of car wash workers up and running, but felt confident workers in Chicago would gain the same level of success seen in Los Angeles, where the country’s first unionized car wash was realized last October.

“It’s a challenging industry, it’s different from a stand-alone factory with 250 people working in it,” Robinson said. “But we believe in the long run we will find an appropriate way to make it possible for car washeros [car wash workers] to engage in collective bargaining, which is the way in which workers advance their lives.”

Illinois Department of Labor spokesman Louis Pukelis said the agency was currently reviewing the study, and has met with Arise “to discuss a plan to target unlawful employment practices within the car wash industry and to encourage compliance with Illinois labor laws.”

He said IDOL has recovered more than $32,000 in back wages over the past five years and is currently pursuing more than $8,000 owed to car wash workers.

“IDOL is also supporting legislation that will add monetary fines and penalties against those employers who do not keep required time and payroll records,” Pukelis said in an email response. “IDOL will continue it's work in protecting earned wages for all Illinois workers.”

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