Picture this: You go to work every day at a car wash. You don’t get paid for all your work. The state of California investigates your employer and announces a fine of more than $2.3 million for wage theft violations and penalties. Three years pass. You still have yet to receive a dime of the money you’re owed.
That’s what Antonio Dominguez and 63 of his colleagues experienced while working at the Playa Vista Car Wash in Culver City, according to a 2019 investigation from the California Labor Commissioner’s office. State regulators found that workers were sometimes told to wait in an alley for hours before being sent home without pay; that overtime pay was frequently withheld; and that managers regularly altered workers’ time cards to reduce their paid hours.
- Dominguez, an immigrant from Mexico: “I would tell myself that in this country I was nobody.”
- He added: “If you lose a day, you have to make it up some other way. There isn’t an option of being without work.”
Although California has some of the toughest labor laws in the country, the state’s enforcement of wage theft laws remains an exercise in frustration for workers and businesses alike, CalMatters’ Alejandro Lazo and Lil Kalish found while reporting their first in a round of stories for the California Divide team‘s new series, “Unpaid Wages: A Waiting Game.”
Consider the following:
- California workers last year filed nearly 19,000 individual stolen wage claims totaling more than $338 million. Thousands of cases are still pending.
- And, while many claims were settled, the average claim filed last year that reached a decision did so after 334 days — well past the 135-day limit set by law.
“While the timeline for investigations can be lengthy, improvements in our laws have given the Labor Commissioner’s office … new tools to assist workers in recovering stolen wages,” spokesperson Erika Monterroza said, adding that the office has hired nearly 300 employees since January 2021.
Monterroza did not comment on the Playa Vista car wash case. But last week, California’s labor commissioner said the state had reached a settlement agreement in principle for the citation with Hooman Nissani, the car wash owner.
Nissani, in his appeal of the citation, said the state’s investigator coaxed workers to sign “untruthful statements” and that the state’s fines and wage assumptions were “grossly inflated” and “riddled with erroneous unfounded assumptions.”
One influential lawmaker said the state should beef up its enforcement of labor laws in the car wash industry.
- Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a San Jose Democrat who leads his house’s Committee on Labor and Employment: “We need more resources and more accountability, particularly in industries like the car wash industry.”
- Chris Buscaglia, a former board member of the Western Carwash Association: “The good actors are paying for the bad actors. We get the bad rap; we pay all the money. It’s a thorn in our side.”