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This Is What De-Regulation Really Looks Like

For anyone who believes that your employer has your best interests in mind, I have a story for you.  Now this story takes place in and around the Chicago area, but do not be concerned with that because this happens in every major city around the country.

Over the winter and spring of 2012 the University of Illinois surveyed 204 employees at 57 different car washes in the Chicagoland area.  Their results were shocking even to me, and I scour the internet looking for employers who abuse their employees.

Employment law violations that were measured in the Chicago Car Wash Study include:

Not being paid the legal overtime rate, being forced to share tips with management, not being compensated for time worked off-the- clock, and not being paid on time or being paid all wages owed.

Other violations of workplace law that were captured concern occupational health and safety standards. These include: no provision of free personal protective equipment to safeguard against hazards; no notification of workplace dangers and their potential harmful health impacts; no access to clean and free drinking water; and no separate and sheltered area for meal breaks.

With all of todays laws, rules, and regulations surrounding workers pay and safety how could this happen? The answer unfortunately is that many of the workers probably do not know they are being taken advantage of.  This answer becomes more evident when you look at the breakdown of the employees who were surveyed.

As you can clearly see less 20% of the workers speak English well (above), and only 16% have a high school equivalent education (below).

It is very easy to see that many of these people probably do not know the labor laws that are being violated.  Many of them did not know they were loosing over $4,000 in wages.  While $4,000 may not seem like a lot to some, consider that one of the major violations exposed in this study found many of the workers were being paid below the minimum wage.  Minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 per hour.  Calculated out for a 40 hour week ($330 before taxes) for 52 weeks you end up with $17,160 (pre-tax).  $4,000 is just a little more that 25% of their overall wages.

One of the largest reasons that workers unionized was safety.  Many companies routinely put the safety of the workers far behind the all mighty dollar.  These car washes are no different.  They violated OSHA regulations left and right resulting in:

  • 5% suffered burns
  • 13% received injuries due to falling
  • 24% routinely experienced nausea and dizziness.
  • 40% of the workers received rashes
  • 50% of workers were cut on the job

This is what one of the workers said:

There’s a cleaner for rims – for wheels – the metal, that’s very strong and sometimes you use its pure form, they don’t dilute it, and there were people that were hurt because of this, that were burned by the liquid, and one time it splashed directly on my face, in my eyes, and I washed myself with cold water and I said to myself that with protective eyewear that would never have happened. But we didn’t have any type of protection.
-Martín, car wash worker

 As you can see from this chart over 80% of surveyed workers did not have personal protective equipment to guard them from dangers on the job nor were they provided information from their employer about harmful occupational health hazards. To make matters worse, almost two-thirds of survey participants did not have clean and free drinking water at work and close to 60 percent had no access to a sheltered meal break area separate from their hazardous work environments.

These conditions are appalling.  We need to bring attention to the blatant worker abuse at these car washes and at millions of other businesses in the United States.  This is a byproduct of the ‘smaller government’.  With less inspectors from OSHA to inspect conditions and ensure worker safety that task then falls to the employer.  I highly doubt the employer is going to turn themselves in for a OSHA violation.

Give us water and safety equipment so our health isn’t put at risk. Because if we are good our families are good, too.
-Samuel, car wash worker

The University of Illinois has three recommendations that will help these workers.

  1. Increase and improve government enforcement of employment laws in car washes.
  2. Create special oversight for the car wash industry in Illinois.
  3. Support educational efforts about worker rights, including health and safety training, for car wash workers.

With these simple steps we can better the working conditions for these workers and workers across the country.

Download the report in English:  CLEAN CARS, DIRTY WORK: Worker Rights Violations in Chicago Car Washes
Or in Spanish: AUTOS LIMPIOS, TRABAJO SUCIO: Violaciones a los derechos de los trabajadores en los lava-autos de Chicago
See the entire press release video

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About Matt Murray

Matt Murray is the creator and an author on the NH Labor News. He is a union member and advocate for labor and progressive politics. He also works with other unions and members to help spread our message. Follow him on Twitter @NHLabor_News
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