New Report Details Shockingly Abusive, Exploitative Working Conditions in Chicago Car Wash Industry
Today at the Jane Addams Hull House, the University of Illinois Labor Education Program publicly released a shocking report revealing a disturbing level of abuse of workers, including blatant violations of minimum wage and overtime laws and widespread health and safety abuses.
The report, Clean Cars, Dirty Work: Worker Rights Violations in Chicago Car Washes, is the first comprehensive study in the country of working conditions in the car wash industry. The report is available online as a PDF in English as well as in Spanish and a video of the release event is available here.
“Literally, this job is killing these people, at the expense of enriching their employers,” said Professor Robert Bruno, Director of the University of Illinois Labor Education Program. “They treat us like we’re less than human, like we’re animals,” said Oscar Olivares, a car wash worker from El Salvador.
The release of the report coincides with the launch of a large-scale campaign to organize car wash workers across the city coordinated by the Arise Chicago Worker Center and the United Steel Workers. “This industry is so abusive that car wash workers have to organize, said Micah Uetricht, an organizer with Arise Chicago. “It’s the only way for them to gain dignity on the job.”
The research team that assembled the report conducted surveys of 204 employees at 57 car washes in Chicago. The data and stories collected represent the experiences of almost one-third of car wash workers and 70 percent of full-service car wash establishments in Chicago. Results from the study revealed four critical findings:
- Over three-quarters of all surveyed workers earned below the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 in hourly income and 13 percent earned less than $2.00 an hour in the previous work week.
- While more than 80 percent of survey respondents worked over 40 hours in the previous work week, less than two percent of these workers earned the legal overtime rate of time and a half.
- On average, survey respondents lost $84.87 in the previous work week through not being paid mandatory minimum wages and overtime rates.
- Calculated over the course of a year, surveyed workers forfeit $4,413.24 — almost one-third of their annual income — to wage theft.
- Despite their support of multiple dependents, almost all surveyed workers earned below the level considered to represent a living wage in Chicago as well as the federal poverty level for a family of four.
- Almost one-quarter of study participants earned below the federal level for extreme poverty.
- More than half of respondents received cuts at work, over 40 percent suffered skin rashes and more than one quarter experienced nausea or dizziness from use of harsh cleaning chemicals in the previous month.
- Over 80 percent 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.
- 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.
- Government enforcement of employment laws in car washes will require new strategies for combating the industry’s rampant violations as well as additional funding to increase the number of investigations. Targeted agency investigations of car washes, as opposed to investigations triggered by worker complaints, will indicate the government’s priority of enforcing the law and cleaning up this industry. Agency collaborations with worker advocates would also likely enhance the process of identifying car washes with pervasive workplace violations and for soliciting worker participation in the monitoring process.
- In 2003, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 1688, the “Car Wash Worker Law,” to address the problems of workplace violations in the car wash industry through a system of registration and enforcement. Passage of this law enabled state labor investigators to visit roughly one third of covered car washes by 2008, and assess approximately $10.7 million in fines and penalties for labor violations and failure to register in accordance with the law.28 Passage of a similar statute in Illinois would provide local authorities with a greater ability to monitor and target the violations of employment law that are endemic to the car wash industry.
- Worker empowerment begins with knowledge about workers rights. Car wash workers who are informed of their rights on their job are better able to recognize workplace violations and protect themselves from health and safety hazards. Organizations that support workers are well prepared to provide these types of training for car wash workers. Increased funding will allow them to broaden both their reach and impact.