NYC Councilmember Francisco Moya and NYS Assemblymember Aridia Espinal: True stories of salon and car wash workers show cruelty of subminimum wage

Laboring long hours in grueling conditions merits standard base pay plus tips

As lifelong New Yorkers who have had the privilege to serve in the state Assembly and the City Council, we have observed first-hand how difficult it is to work in car washes, where employees, largely immigrants and people of color, must toil for long hours just to make ends meet.

These workers, who have historically been victims of wage theft and other wage and hour violations, deserve to make at least the minimum wage. But state regulations allow car wash owners to pay their workers less than the state minimum wage.
This is unfair and must end.

The state’s minimum wage in New York City is $13 an hour, but business owners pay tipped employees—car wash workers, restaurant servers and nail salon technicians—anywhere between $9.80 or $11.05 under a complicated and confusing system based on the type of industry and the size of the business. Tips are supposed to make up the difference, but they often do not, in which case it is the employer's obligation.

Car wash workers, who are some of the poorest workers in New York, can take home as little as $125 a week, get only short breaks or none at all, are frequently told to stay home without pay in bad weather and can be exposed to toxic chemicals while working 60 to 70 hours a week to make ends meet.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had the state Labor Department convene a series of seven hearings to consider righting this terrible wrong and bring all workers up to the minimum wage. After five hearings upstate and on Long Island, New York City had a chance to be heard on June 19 and, for the first time, the testimony was focused on car wash, nail salon and other tipped workers in nonhospitality industries. Dozens of them implored the panel to bring all workers up to the minimum wage. (The final hearing, June 27 in Manhattan, will focus on restaurant workers.)

The panel is considering the stories of workers like these:

Carlos Castellanos, 70, has worked at car washes for 18 years. He has witnessed unscrupulous owners shortchanging workers by millions of dollars over the years by not paying minimum wage or overtime and by stealing tips. He works at a car wash in Queens vacuuming and drying cars and encountering dangerous chemicals. His meager salary must support himself and his wife here, help relatives in El Salvador and cover his grandchildren's school expenses. Tips are necessary to his survival.

Camilo Montes works at a car wash in Long Island City. He spends his day vacuuming and brushing cars, often getting little or nothing in tips. Like the other 2,500 carwasheros in New York City, his is exposed to hazardous chemicals. They often suffer heat exhaustion in the summer and illness in the winter because they are exposed to cold water for hours on end.

Gemma Rossi, a server in New York for 15 years, says that because she works for tips, she often must put with sexual harassment. “No worker should have to fake giggle to a customer who has had one too many, or put up with customers who make lewd comments about my ‘sexy’ body to earn a living,” she says.

Glenda Sefla, a manicurist, worked 10-hour shifts for $30 a day, six days a week with no lunch break. She averaged $80 a week in tips, bringing her weekly earnings to $260. “The stress of … having to depend on others simply to pay for rent was unbearable,” she says.

A single fair wage would free workers from having to endure sexual harassment to earn a livable wage. It would allow workers to earn the state’s minimum wage and tips on top of that, which is the fairest way to help these workers.

It also would make it easier for workers to predict their weekly pay and allow employers to more easily maintain accurate payroll records. And it would prevent workers’ wages from being stolen.

As the governor has said, this is an issue of basic fairness. We urge the Labor Department to bring these workers up to the minimum wage. We owe them at least that much.

This column originally appeared in Crain's Online. 

Francisco Moya is a City Council member and Espinal is an Assembly member. Both represent Queens.