New York City carwasheros deserve a livable wage

William Alatriste for the City Council

There are scores of important bills awaiting a vote in these last days of the legislative session, but few are as important as one that would bring as many as 5,000 car wash workers across New York City up to the minimum wage. 

Believe it or not, the largely immigrant workers who wash thousands of cars a day in all five boroughs are currently paid less than the minimum wage. The fact is that they rely on their customers’ generosity to bring them up to the lowest legally allowable wage, even though the work is hard and can be dangerous due to accidents or because the workers are often exposed to harmful chemicals. 

 “Carwasheros,” as they call themselves, are among the lowest-paid and most exploited workers in New York City. Many work 50 to 60 hours a week or more to support themselves and their families. They consider themselves lucky if they can make as much as $400 a week, but they often bring home far less depending on the season and the weather.

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Car wash owners – some of whom are millionaires – are entitled to claim a tip credit, meaning they don’t have to pay the minimum wage because their businesses are covered under an archaic rule call the New York State Miscellaneous Industry Wage Order, which categorizes “carwasheros” as tipped workers.

In New York City, the minimum wage for businesses with 10 or fewer workers is $10.50 an hour, and $11 for larger businesses. With the tip credit, owners can pay their workers as little as $7.95 an hour for shops with 10 or fewer workers, and $8.30 for businesses with more than 11 employees.

That means workers must rely on tips to make the minimum wage. Workers report that tips might average $3 to $5 a car, but many don't tip at all, perhaps because they assume the workers make the minimum wage or more.

The tip-credit system is confusing because owners can claim different tip credits based on traffic and workers are unable to predict their earnings or tell whether they have been paid properly.

Perhaps worst of all, unscrupulous car wash owners can use the tip credit – and other nefarious practices – to steal their workers’ wages. Wage theft is still a big problem in the car-wash industry, which is not well regulated. 

In the last 10 years, some car wash owners have agreed to pay upward of a combined $10 million in settlements with the state attorney general’s office because of wage and hour violations, including failure to pay the minimum wage, refusing to pay overtime or illegally taking part of workers’ tips. There have been numerous news articles and advocacy reports regarding such abuses.

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Assemblyman Francisco Moya and I have introduced identical bills in the Assembly (A 2967)  and Senate (S 2664) to require that every car wash worker in New York City be paid the minimum wage “without allowance for gratuities.” The bills have widespread support and should be passed and sent to Gov. Cuomo’s desk immediately.

As of now, these bills are bottled up in committees – and time is running short. I strongly urge our leaders to bring these bills to the floor for a vote, and I urge all lawmakers – regardless of party or faction – to pass these important pieces of legislation. 

There is no good reason for anyone to oppose the idea that all car wash workers should be able to earn the state’s minimum wage without relying on the generosity of their customers. It’s an archaic system that keeps individuals in poverty and needs to be eliminated.

Jesse Hamilton is a Democratic state senator from Brooklyn