‘Carwasheros’ Finally Receive Millions in Unpaid Wages

Carwash employees celebrate their victory. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Carwash employees celebrate their victory. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“New York workers can fight for their rights regardless of their status because the law protects them equally. There is nothing to fear when it comes to justice being done,” said attorney Steven Arenson, from the Arenson, Dittmar & Karban law firm, after announcing that 18 car wash employees are about to receive the last payment for the wages owed to them after a tough legal battle in an abuse and worker exploitation case that took more than five years to be resolved.

After reaching an agreement in 2014 with José Vásquez, a Cuban man who owns four car wash establishments in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx and New Jersey, the plaintiffs won $1,650,000. On Tuesday, they will receive the remaining 55 percent of their unpaid salary.

“We had to sort out many obstacles to finally reach an agreement with the owner,” said the lawyer. He explained that the workers were denied minimum wages and overtime, and that many of them were laid off in retaliation for joining the lawsuit.

Arenson said that, on average, each worker will receive $91,000, adding that for years, Vásquez tried to evade justice through dishonest tactics including stating that he had never met the employees – whom he paid in cash. Vásquez ended up filing for bankruptcy, which, if approved, may hurt the chances of other employees attempting to recover their money in the future.

“I started working with him in 2008, and everything seemed nice in the beginning. But we worked 12 hours per day with no lunch breaks, and we were only paid $50 a day, regardless of the freezing or scorching weather,” said Rojas-Corona, 46, one of the 18 employees in the lawsuit.

Giovanni Paulino, 31, who lead the complaint, said that he decided to turn to the New York State Department of Labor after he was humiliated in 2010 by the manager of the Upper Manhattan car wash where he worked, who screamed at him and fired him because Paulino had stepped out for a few minutes to buy a bottle of water.

“We were always told that whoever dared to sue would get into trouble because no one would ever hire him again, but today I can tell everyone that they should not let anyone humiliate them and that they should fight for their rights. We work for a wage,” said Paulino. He explained that managers would even take the money that customers tipped them directly.

Antonio Pichardo, 70, worked at some of the company’s locations since 2005. He remembered that he started in New Jersey, where the exploitation was even worse.

“We called that place a concentration camp. We had to be in Manhattan at 7 a.m. to get in the van that took us there, and they would drive us back at night. They handed us sealed envelopes, but we had no idea how much money they were going to give us. We sometimes got $30 per day, and they went as far as giving us $10,” he said, now happy to have been able to obtain the money he was denied.

“Justice was done. That gives me more peace of mind,” said Pichardo.

“These were people who lived paycheck to paycheck, and they were not only denied their wages but were put in a vulnerable position by being laid off as retaliation for suing,” said Arenson. He pointed out that workers who are not paid by their employer who want to sue should not delay doing so, as New York law only allows plaintiffs to claim six years of back pay.

Rojas-Corona said that he would like to open his own car wash business with the money he received, but stressed that he would never follow his former boss’ footsteps. “Be yourself and don’t copy anyone. That’s what I learned,” said the worker.

According to New York University School of Law Professor Samuel Estreicher, who is also the director of the school’s Center for Labor and Employment Law, this is the largest amount of money ever recovered for car wash employees in New York City.

Attempts to obtain comments from the car wash owner were unsuccessful.

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