Attorneys for Los Angeles area carwash workers on Wednesday announced a settlement of a class action lawsuit for the recovery of stolen wages owed to about 400 workers. The defendants, who own four carwashes, will pay $1 million to settle the suit. The suit alleges that the workers routinely worked 10-hour days for less than half the minimum wage and that some received no salary, working only for tips.
The settlement, which attorneys for the workers describe as that the largest monetary settlement to date in the carwash industry, resolves a suit filed in 2008 by workers active in the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, which seeks to stop abuses in the carwash industry. Last month, the campaign announced the first ever union contract between a carwash owner and its workers.
“These workers demonstrated remarkable resolve and courage by demanding the lawful wages they had earned through their hard work,” said David Adelstein, a partner at Bush Gottlieb Singer López Kohanski Adelstein & Dickinson, who litigated the case. “The settlement demonstrates that low-wage carwash workers will not quietly accept this kind of exploitation.”
The defendants in the lawsuit are Benny and Nisan Pirian. After the workers filed their suit, the Los Angeles City Attorney took an interest in the case and filed misdemeanor charges for what amounted to wage theft against the Pirians. Last summer, the two pleaded no contest and were sentenced to a year in jail. They will sell one of their carwashes to cover the cost of settling the civil suit.
The success of the lawsuit will likely have an industry wide effect, at least in Southern California, because carwash owners have assumed that they can abuse their workers without fear of repercussions. “For years, these businesses relied for their success on an assumption that workers can be intimidated into silence about fundamental violations of their workplace rights, said Kevin Kish, co-counsel and director of Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project. “The plaintiffs in this case have proven that assumption wrong.”
Carwash owners now appear to have two choices regarding the way they treat their workers. They can take the high road and treat their workers with dignity and respect like the owners of Bonus Car Wash, who last month signed the first union carwash contract with the United Steelworkers Local 675, or they can continue to abuse their workers and either face jail time or large payouts to settle lawsuits.
“The Pirian-operated carwashes exemplified the carwash industry’s worst practices,” said Chloe Osmer, acting director of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign. “To see their employees recover a settlement of this size sends a powerful message to the estimated 10,000 other carwash workers in Los Angeles County that exploitation is no longer the default practice in this industry.”
“What we are beginning to see in this industry is a clear ‘high road,’ with some employers bringing their operations into compliance with minimum labor, health-and-safety, and environmental standards,” Kish said. “This settlement is an example of what happens when employers remain on the ‘low road’.”
Bet Tzedek (Hebrew for House of Justice) Legal Services, which provided co-counsels for the workers, describes itself as one of the premier public interest law firms in the nation. It provides free legal services in matters involving consumer rights, elder law, housing, public benefits and workers’ rights to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds.
Bush Gottlieb Singer López Kohanski Adelstein & Dickinson, which litigated the case, describes itself as a law firm dedicated to the practice of law to advance the cause of working people. The firm’s attorneys appear and advocate regularly throughout the nation before federal, state and local courts, administrative agencies and arbitration panels in their representation of unions, collectively bargained trust funds, and employees, with respect to a broad range of labor relations and employment matters.