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Clean cars, dirty tactics

and Doug Smith

LOS ANGELES — A team of state inspectors strode into the Blue Wave Car Wash past latte-sipping customers and into the gritty carwash tunnel.

"Cuanto gana usted?" the inspectors asked about 20 Hispanic workers. "How much do you make?"

Each "carwashero" responded that he earned minimum wage or more — just as the owner of the Blue Wave had told the inspectors.

Looking over payroll records, however, the regulators became suspicious. Employees who said they were full time were working just 10 or 15 hours a week.

Inspector Martha Mendoza ushered Juan Cruz Santiago, 41, away from the others. He admitted that he and his 66-year-old father worked for tips only. So did nearly half the other immigrant employees, he said, for at least six years.

"It's bad," the Oaxacan immigrant whispered to Mendoza. "Other carwashes are the same, no?"

Many are.

A Los Angeles Times investigation has found that hand carwashes — automotive beauty shops patronized by thousands of Southern California motorists every day — often brazenly violate basic labor and immigration laws with little risk of penalty.

Half or more of carwash owners flout the minimum-wage law, estimated David Dorame, the lead investigator for low-wage industries at California's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

Despite undocumented workers' reluctance to complain, employees at one-fifth of Southern California's carwashes in the past five years have accused owners of underpaying them.

Many said they received only tips for some or all of their shifts. "Tips only" is a requirement for new workers until owners are satisfied that they can properly dry a car, laborers said. Their take is typically $10 to $30 a day.

At the Blue Wave, owner Isaac Shanfeld of Beverly Hills told inspectors that his workers earn minimum wage, costing him $700,000 a year. But after the inspection last fall, he was issued a $2,600 citation for wage violations.

Paid workers at some of the other 1,000 washes throughout Southern California said they earned as little as $1.63 an hour even though the minimum wage rose to $8 an hour in January.

"We sweat like animals," said detailer Manuel Varela, 42.

To survive, carwasheros pool resources, cram into cheap apartments, sleep side by side on the floor like, as one worker put it, "salchichas embolsadas," or stuffed sausages.

"Employers feel out the lowest amount these workers will take," said Timothy Kolesnikow, who represents carwasheros and others in his law practice. "People don't realize the human misery involved in getting their cars washed. There is a dark side to this."

But many undocumented workers won't complain for fear of being fired, threatened or deported.

Pedro Guzman, an illegal immigrant from Honduras, said a manager at a Hollywood carwash kept employees washing at a furious pace — 350 to 700 cars a day — with two words: "Quiere casa?" — "Want to go home?"

Immigration authorities have done little to discourage undocumented workers, affording carwash owners an endless supply of easily exploited labor.

Despite the national debate over illegal immigration and crackdowns on some employers, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they have not raided a California carwash in four years. A 2000 survey by the U.S. Census showed that 92 percent of Los Angeles County's carwasheros were noncitizens; nearly one-third acknowledged they were undocumented.

"I cannot get legal employees," said Gene B. Ho, owner of Pico Car Wash.

In Southern California, each carwash grosses an average of nearly $1 million a year, according to the Western Carwash Association, an industry trade group. But legitimate operators typically run on 8 percent to 10 percent profit margins and sometimes struggle to make payroll, said Randy Cressall, a board member of the association and owner of Valencia Auto Spa in Valencia.

Operators who skirt minimum-wage and other laws make it tough to compete. His association supports increasing fines so that they are not accepted as a cost of doing business.

"We still allow people to operate cheaper illegally, even faced with fines, than legally," he said.

"Large carwashes can save $5,000 or $10,000, at least, a month by not abiding by the law."

Cressall has advice for customers: Shun carwashes that offer a complete cleaning, inside and out, for as little as $5.

According to a 2005 survey by the International Carwash Association, nearly two-thirds of motorists nationwide used carwashes, often four to six times a year.

At Pico Car Wash, a steady flow of vehicles rolled through the wash tunnel, pulled by a chain as workers rushed to soap them.

"The chain doesn't stop," said Erick Garcia, a "secador," or dryer.

He has done every job at Pico, which has paid or settled wage claims totaling nearly $22,000 since 2000 and is embroiled in a lawsuit over wages by 13 workers, including Garcia.

Soapers, or "jaboneros," wash 500 cars on the busiest days, crouching to brush wheel rims and climbing to scour SUV roofs, Garcia said.

"Your hands have to be like lightning," Garcia said, swiftly lathering one side in less than two minutes.

As customers waited in the shade, Garcia wiped the interiors of vehicles by the midday sun, then sprayed degreaser on the wheel rims.

He and the other workers, about a dozen men ranging in age from 20 to 40, wore baseball caps over wet rags on their heads to keep from overheating.

Garcia's boss, inside an air-conditioned office adorned with a "God Bless America" banner, watched his workers on security monitors.

By comparison, Garcia's job was easy. At the entrance of the carwash, "vacumeros" were suctioning dust out of carpets and plucking out debris, including rotten food, matted dog hair and used condoms.

"You spend all day stooped over," said Garcia, who spent his first year as a vacumero. After 11 hours bent over, his back would spasm as he bicycled home.

Many carwash owners are legal immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. Kevin Kish, an attorney with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a nonprofit legal aid agency, said the immigrant owners often bring a cavalier attitude toward the law and a tendency to treat workers like property.

Manuel Varela, 42, details a car at Nary's Hand Wash just west of downtown Los Angeles.According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, many workers in the world’s capitol of car washes are paid in tips and don't get hourly wages, much less minimum wage. - Los Angeles Times