City lawmakers want to regulate car wash industry

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Car wash rally. (Gloria Pazmino.)
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City Council speaker candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito wants to crack down on car wash operators who mistreat their workers with a new law that would regulate the industry.

Mark-Viverito, a Democratic councilwoman from East Harlem, is the main sponsor of the "carwash accountability act" which would require operators to obtain licenses and abide by government regulations in areas such as wages and waste disposal.

During a City Council civil service and labor committee hearing on Thursday, Mark-Viverito, said she was surprised to learn the industry had gone unregulated for so long.

"It's amazing to me that an industry that uses the kind of ingredients, or chemicals that are used in a car wash are not regulated," she said. "It just doesn't make sense to me."

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Bronx car wash worker Juan Carlos Rivera testified workers are often asked to dispose of sludge and water runoff by dumping it directly into city sewers and catch basins."We are told to be careful when dumping the sludge, and to watch for cops who can ticket us," said Rivera. "Owners warn us that they could be fined or shut down by the city if we are caught."

Rivera also testified that workers are not trained in how to handle the chemicals or given safety equipment. Some have experienced skin irritations and asthma, he said.

The proposed legislation would require all city car washes to get a yearly license to operate from the city's consumer affairs department. Operators would also have to comply with rules from the New York City department of environmental protection regarding proper waste disposal.

If the bill is signed into law car wash operators could be denied licenses if there is evidence of unpaid back wages, breach of contracts, or violations of the same environmental, health and city laws that other businesses such as dry cleaners, laundromats, and restaurants operate under. Operators would also have to get a bond to cover unpaid fines to the city and cover damages to customers and workers.

The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), has led a unionizing effort of the workers, securing six labor contracts at different car wash companies throughout the city over the last six months. The contracts grant workers paid vacation time, higher wages, and better workplace conditions.

Although the union backed City Council speaker Christine Quinn in the Democratic primary, RWDSU officials are now hoping the incoming mayor will support the legislation and sign the bill into law.

"Bill de Blasio has been wonderfully supportive of the carwash campaign," said David Mertz, assistant to the president at RWDSU. "He's been outspoken in his support for workers rights to organize, and I think he's the perfect person to actually help us see these kinds of reforms."

According to the New York State Department of Labor, nearly 80 percent of the car washes in New York City may have serious wage and hour violations including failure to pay the minimum wage and overtime pay.

Mark-Viverito said that she decided to take on the unregulated industry because one of the biggest car washes operated by Lage Management Corp. — one of the largest car wash operators in the city which has been investigated by state attorney general Eric Schneiderman for not paying workers overtime — is located in her district.

Mark-Viverito said she believed de Blasio will back the measure.

"I would expect him to be supportive but obviously as with any bill he has to be informed and briefed on it and then he can make an informed opinion on that," said Mark-Viverito. "But I would think it's right up his alley in terms of the way he has expressed support in other issues, and I think they're looking at the idea of holding bad actors accountable this is obviously something that speaks to that directly."

In a statement, de Blasio spokeswoman Lis Smith said "Mayor-elect de Blasio and his team will review the bill. He has been a strong supporter of the right of car wash workers to organize and has been clear that the city should not work with car wash owners who engage in union-busting."