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Car Wash Employers Don’t Come Clean

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California Car Wash Employers are Notorious for Wage Theft

Los Angeles, CAWage theft is an ongoing California labor law violation, and it often happens at the car wash. Sadly, most victims are the Golden State’s most vulnerable workers: they are low wage earners, have the least education and fewest legal protections. Often, they are immigrants and people of color. Generally no one goes to jail for the theft so it occurs regularly, despite California making most wage theft a criminal offense last year.

2022 Car Wash Lawsuits and Settlements

Shine N Brite: In November 2022, the Labor Commissioner’s Office issued fines against Shine N Brite car wash in Inglewood for failing to pay a minimum wage, as well as failing to provide overtime, a meal period, rest period and an itemized wage statement to 15 workers. An investigation determined that workers were paid a flat daily rate as low as $70 – they worked 8- to 10- hour days. Workers who complained about their wages and safety issues faced retaliation, including dismissal or reduced hours.


Former Shine N Brite employee Fausto Hernandez first brought wage theft issues to CLEAN (below) in late 2020 and the Labor Commissioner’s Office began investigating about a year later. Hernandez, who was paid a daily flat rate of $70 but usually worked up to 10 hours some days, said he was also denied rest and lunch breaks on busy days. California’s minimum wage is $14 to $15 per hour, depending on the size of the company. Hernandez and other workers were paid as low as $7 per hour.

CBS News reported that the employers used different schemes to avoid paying legal wages, such as paying flat daily rates, and paying workers in cash, which are unlawful practices. The investigation accused owner Michael Zarabi of stealing wages from employees for years. He and his business partner, Farhad Shamloo, now face wage theft fines. The total owed to the employees, according to the commission, is more than $732,000, plus $86,000 in interest. And civil penalty against Shine N Brite of $90,000 brings the total to $900,000 total.

Klassic Car Wash & Detail Center and Castle Carwash: In October, The Labor Commissioner’s Office recovered more than $282,000 for wage theft violations at the Carwash in Long Beach. Twenty-two car wash workers were not paid for the time they were on premises, in some cases up to three hours a day. The workers were not paid overtime or minimum wages.  An investigation into Classic Castle Car Wash, Inc., which operates Klassic Car Wash & Detail Center and Castle Carwash in Long Beach, found that some workers were forced to wait up to three hours before clocking in, while others were only paid for hours when they performed car wash duties and were asked to remain onsite without pay when it wasn’t busy. 

The $282,000 will pay workers about $229,000 for the overtime and minimum wages, liquidated damages and waiting time penalties owed; $53,000 in civil penalties will go to the state. The monies were secured after a lien on real property was filed by the Labor Commissioner’s Office on Classic Castle Car Wash, Inc. 

Torrance Car Wash: Theft and labor code violations at Torrance Car Wash resulted in a fine of more than $800,000 for underpaying 35 workers. The car wash owners are appealing the fine.

Rancho Carwash: Investigators with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division discovered that MG Petroleum Inc., operator of Rancho Carwash – a gas station, mini market and car wash – in Rancho Cucamonga, tried to hide its illegal actions by giving workers two paychecks: one for the first 40 hours worked, and a second for overtime hours paid at straight-time rates, without legally required overtime premium. The division also determined that MG Petroleum workers could only take lunch breaks as customer demand dictated. Although employees could not take uninterrupted one-hour lunch breaks, they were still deducted an average of 4 hours per week for lunch breaks. The investigation led to the recovery of $101,096 in back wages and an equal amount of $101,096 in liquidated damages for the carwash workers.

CLEAN for Car Wash Workers

At least two of the above investigations were launched after the Labor Commissioner's Office received a referral from CLEAN Car Wash Worker Center, an organization that fights exploitation in the car wash industry. It drew attention to theft and labor violations at Torrance and Shine N Brite. 

“The solution to taking on this issue of wage theft in the industry is not just filing claims, I think the biggest issue here is collecting the wages from the employers who steal from workers’ pockets,” Flor Rodriguez, the executive director of CLEAN, said in a Monday, Nov. 28 interview. “We want him (Zarabi) to not appeal a citation, and do the right thing and pay what he owes the workers.
former Shine N Brite employee Fausto Hernandez, who first brought wage theft issues Hernandez first brought complaints to CLEAN in late 2020 and the Labor Commissioner’s Office opened their investigation in October 2021to CLEAN’s attention after a representative visited the site to inform workers of their rights.

“Unfortunately, this is all very common in the industry and this is why we continue to organize workers,” said Andrea Gonzales, organizing director at CLEAN. “Also, I think something that’s very common is workers not understanding of their rights and employers taking advantage of that.”

The Long Wait

Most workers who file wage theft claims wait months or years before getting a resolution and only a few who prevail get repaid lost wages, even when state regulators get involved.

In 2021 California workers filed nearly 19,000 individual stolen wage claims totaling more than $338 million, according to a database provided to CalMatters by the Labor Commissioner’s office.  While many claims did settle, the average case filed last year that did get to a decision was 334 days old — well over the 135-day limit set by law — and thousands of cases filed in 2021 remain pending. 

CAP radio reported workers still hadn’t been compensated from a 2019 investigation by the state Labor Commissioner’s office that found Playa Vista had short-changed 64 workers in wages – they have waited three years. It said  the company was fined more than $2.3 million in wage theft violations and penalties, its largest fine ever issued against a car wash business. (One worker, Dominguez, told CAP radio that he worked at that car wash from about 1997 to 2005. For the first five years, he said, he made tips only, often little more than $15 a day. Workers also were being paid per car, or daily rates, and some were being asked to work off the clock. Some of the younger and more recently hired car washers were paid only in tips.)

Wage Theft Statistics

Although the number of wage theft claims are down, their value is up. The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) in 2020 reported workers were filing 30,000 claims a year on average, totaling more than $320 million annually. But workers only recovered about $40 million, or about one-eighth, of those claims.

According to The California Chamber of Commerce, most businesses pay workers fairly and wage theft claims are a fragment of a percent of California’s $1 trillion-a-year payroll. But economists say wage claims data doesn’t tell the whole story because many workers don’t report the violations. Although about 1 in 600 workers statewide file wage claims each year, the share of workers owed unpaid wages likely is much greater than 1 in 600. A few of these other workers probably try to recover unpaid wages through a lawsuit or a federal complaint, but most do not.

In 2017, workers filed claims for a total of $320 million in unpaid wages—about $10,000 per claim on average—and recovered about $40 million in total. Of that $40 million, workers who settled their claims received $25 million. Workers who chose not to settle and instead proceeded to a formal hearing collected the remaining $15 million. Unfortunately, less than half of workers who received an award collected any wages from their employer. On average, workers waited 396 days for the state to adjudicate their wage claim.
Critics say California’s enforcement of its requirement that car washes register with the state has lacked enforcement, particularly during the pandemic. A report this year by UCLA graduate students found 770 car washes registered with the state in 2020. But there were 2,015 of these establishments operating in California according to 2020 U.S. Census figures. Los Angeles County alone had 576 car washes. 

Wage Theft Enforcement

“We need more resources and more accountability, particularly in industries like the car wash industry,” said Assemblymember Ash Kalra, adding that the Legislature needs to commit more funds to enforcement and the Labor Commissioner needs to deploy them. “We need to raise our voices and make it very clear that we are collectively failing our workers throughout the state in industries where they need us the most.” The state has added 288 people to the Labor Commissioner’s Office since January 2021, including 116 in the Wage Claim Adjudication Unit and 63 in the Bureau of Field Enforcement.


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