Most carwash workers barely make a livable wage. A new business model can fix that
Have you ever worked a 12-hour work day in the hot California sun, alternating between hard work for a sub-minimum tipped wage and unpaid downtime? Have you done this work without adequate PPE, during Covid, and seen the toll that daily work with abrasive chemicals takes on your hands? Have you seen your tips and wages unfairly shortchanged by your employer, and felt too scared to say something because you can’t afford to lose this job? If not, you’ve likely never worked as one of LA’s 10,000+ carwarshers.
That life is hard for LA’s carwash workers is visible to all, even those who choose not to see it, but what is often hidden from view is the darker underbelly of this industry. But I’ve seen it. I was one of the founders of the nation’s first carwash worker rights advocacy organization because I have seen first-hand how car washes have become one of Los Angeles’ most exploitative industries.
Workers in this industry not only earn some of the consistently lowest wages in the country, they are also highly susceptible to wage theft, exploitation and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) while working with toxic chemicals. While this and other industries await regulatory relief from above in the form of better minimum wage laws and labor law protections, more urgent solutions must also come from below.
One solution is to rethink the car wash business model writ large. Right now, most car washes treat the carwash workers as back-end workers, unskilled, not part of training and promotion schemes, and often not paid for downtime between washes. Because of the limited options for alternative employment, too many car wash businesses have been able to get away with this model for too long. The quickest and easiest way to protect workers is to put the carwash workers themselves in the driver’s seat as owners by creating a co-op model business.
This month, a first-of-its-kind business – CleanWash Mobile – launched in LA County as a worker-owned, worker-run carwash that puts the workers first, ensures a fair distribution of profits and tips, and a living wage for everyone. It also dismantles the culture of fear that is unfortunately so rampant within the current industry. Most carwash workers are afraid of speaking up in the face of unfair or unsafe practices on the part of management in fear of retribution. And the co-op model is also the first step in changing the public perception of carwash workers. Usually considered unskilled, a co-op model better allows for opportunities for further education, training and career advancement opportunities that other similarly skilled workers have long enjoyed in other industries.
The co-op model is only a part of the solution, however. To transform the carwash industry in Los Angeles and nationwide by pioneering this business model and scaling it up requires community buy-in. California has long been a leader in labor protections, social justice and innovation, but often that change has come from below while waiting for solutions from above, and this instance is no different. CleanWash Mobile is striking up partnerships with corporate and community clients such as St. John’s Community Health Centers who want to support this initiative by hiring CleanWash Mobile’s worker-owners to service their fleets of vehicles, at their locations. LA’s 10,000+ carwash workers are a vital part of the city’s economy and community and providing them a pathway to a safer, more equitable and fairly-paid career path is only possible with the support of companies who choose to take their business to carwashes that live up to this standard.
The opportunity for this innovative local model to spark a national transformation of the carwash industry has long been the hope of the advocates working on behalf of carwash workers. LA is now home to a dozen unionized car wash businesses and in 2013, they helped pass a law that protects car wash workers from wage theft. This legislation led to the largest ever monetary fine for wage theft against a car wash business ($2.3 million), and signaled that the unfair practices that had gone on for far too long could finally be redressed.
The work of advocacy and protection, legislation and regulation, will continue, but it is time to do more than protect and advocate – it is a time to empower. By putting LA’s carwash workers in charge of their own economic destinies for the first time in the city’s history as co-owners in a sustainable, greener, safer and fairer co-op business, we are leading the nation in bringing this industry out of the shadows and fully into a fairer, more equitable economy.