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Workers the ones getting hosed at Chicago car washes, new study says

Robert Bruno
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L. Brian Stauffer

The car wash industry that operates year-round in Chicago is rife with wage and hour law violations, occupational health and safety hazards, and poor overall working conditions, according to research from Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois.

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10/16/2012 | Phil Ciciora, Business & Law Editor | 217-333-2177; pciciora@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The car wash industry that operates year-round in Chicago is rife with wage and hour law violations, occupational health and safety hazards, and poor overall working conditions, according to research from a University of Illinois labor expert.

Car wash companies in Chicago employ hundreds of workers, yet little research has been done to provide insight about the working conditions they face every day, says Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations on the Urbana campus.

Bruno and co-authors Alison Dickson Quesada, a labor education specialist, and Frank Manzo IV, a research assistant, have conducted the first comprehensive study of Chicago car wash work and violations of employment law to shed light on an occupation that often operates in the shadows and an industry that operates in a legal gray area.

The results from the study revealed four critical findings:

  • Violations of wage and hour laws are the norm among car wash workers, with over three-quarters of all surveyed workers earning below the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 per hour; 13 percent earning less than $2 per hour; and less than 2 percent of workers earning legal overtime pay.
  • Workplace violations – including workers forfeiting pay through wage theft – result in high costs for car wash workers.
  • Car wash workers live in poverty, with one-quarter earning below the federal level for extreme poverty.
  • Chicago car washes are hazardous to workers’ health and lives, with more than 80 percent of workers going without personal protective equipment that by law should be supplied by employers.

“Going into this project, we suspected that things were bad in this industry, but I don’t think we had any idea just how bad things actually were,” said Bruno, also the director of the Labor Education Program in Chicago.

“It’s pretty obvious that there is a perception among employers that this is a workforce that is easy to exploit,” Quesada said. “Car washing is generally a cash business, with a lot of workers being paid under the table. It’s also a seasonal workforce where the number of workers fluctuates from one day to the next. Both of those factors usually lead to a whole host of problems.”

The researchers surveyed 204 employees at 57 car washes in Chicago, collecting detailed information about wages and hours worked, occupational health and safety violations, and overall working conditions in the local car wash industry. 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, the researchers say.

“We interviewed a representative sample of car wash workers, which leads us to conclude that these are the experiences that the average car wash worker would face throughout the Chicago metropolitan area,” Quesada said. “The workers we surveyed were overwhelmingly immigrants with very low levels of education and English proficiency. From past research, workers who lack education and English-speaking skills are less likely to stand up for their rights. So it’s a particularly vulnerable population.”

According to the research, while more than 80 percent of survey respondents worked more than 40 hours in the previous workweek, less than 2 percent of these workers earned the legal overtime rate of time-and-a-half pay.

“Three-quarters of the workforce earning less than the minimum wage – that’s bad,” Quesada said. “But then when you put a dollar figure on that, especially when you’re talking about the lowest wage workers, that’s a huge chunk of their earnings.”

But there are other ways that workers were suffering from wage theft that didn’t figure into the researchers’ calculations.

“We discovered that workers were being charged illegally for things like safety equipment or other personal protective equipment – things that are the legal responsibility of employers,” Bruno said.

“There were car washes where workers who had a mandatory obligation to pay for the cleaning of their uniforms,” Quesada said. “The law allows employers to charge for uniforms but they can’t charge more than market rate. A lot of workers we surveyed certainly paid above-market rates.”

In the paper, the researchers make three recommendations for improving working conditions in Chicago car washes:

  • Increase and improve government enforcement of employment laws in car washes to combat the industry’s rampant violations.
  • Create special oversight for the car wash industry in Illinois, similar to reforms passed in California in 2003.
  • Support educational efforts about worker rights, including health and safety training, for car wash workers.

“Results from this study expose an entire local industry where the daily theft of workers’ wages and dangerous working conditions appear to be industry standards rather than exceptions to the norm,” Bruno said. “These reforms will go a long way toward empowering workers and enforcing workplace laws that are already on the books.”

Editor's notes: To contact Robert Bruno, call 630-487-0013; email bbruno@illinois.edu.

The paper, “Clean Cars, Dirty Work: Worker Rights Violations in Chicago Car Washes," is available online.

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