Employees say they were unjustly let go for work stoppage
Two-dozen recently-fired car wash workers protested in front of the Sunny Day Car Wash on Lincoln Avenue at the corner of E. 136th St. on Tuesday, demanding three weeks pay they say they have coming to them. They also want their jobs back.
The workers say they were let go for refusing to report for work last Sunday at the car wash, which operates next to the Major Deegan Expressway. One said that when he went to the office demanding his late paychecks last week, the manager showed him a letter of resignation and told him he would have to sign it in order to pick up a check for just one of the three weeks pay he was owed.
The company says checks were late due to a glitch in the payment system. Sunny Day’s owner, Frank Roman, was not available for comment. The company’s manager, Joseph Lopez, declined to comment.
Juan Antonio Campis, 20, of Mott Haven, said he and other exasperated workers called for the stoppage last Sunday after Sunny Day strung them along and failed to pay them for three weeks work.
“They gave excuses. They told us we were going to get paid on Thursday, then Friday. They said, ‘you’re going to get your checks,’” he said.
Workers and representatives of the union backing them, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, doubt a simple accounting error is to blame. They say conditions at the shop have been deplorable for a long time.
“We get no gloves, no coats—nothing we need for protection,” said Nelson Hernandez, 22, a Tremont resident, who said he was terminated last week for participating in the one-day walkout, after working at Sunny Day for four-and-half years.
Hector Mancia, 39, said he was laid off earlier this year for complaining about slow pay.
“They never paid on payday,” he said.
The strike is the latest in a statewide campaign called WASH New York launched by car wash workers and two non-profits last spring, demanding better working conditions. The non-profit organizations, Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, are spearheading the initiative, with support from the department store union.
Through the union, Sunny Day’s fired workers say they want the back wages they are owed, their jobs restored, and the right to form a union.They say they earn $5.50 an hour. Minimum wage in New York is $7.25.
But car wash owners justify low hourly pay, insisting drivers tip workers when they drive through. Union representatives and workers counter that tips are paltry, and managers often concoct reasons not to share tips with them, instead pocketing the extra cash.
“An antenna broke. They took $20 out of our tips,” said Pedro Velasquez, explaining management held him and three other workers responsible for breaking the $80 antenna off the hood of a car that drove through recently. He said management has also withheld tip money when equipment, such as mechanical brushes, becomes defective.
“That’s not our fault,” Velasquez said.
While workers waited on the sidewalk holding up their placards in the cold drizzle, a lawyer for the union, Larry Cary, went into Sunny Day’s office to speak with the shop manager. When he came out he told workers, through a Spanish interpreter, they could go inside one at a time and pick up their checks for one week’s back pay. He added that they could pick up a second week’s pay the following day, but the third week’s unpaid wages remained in limbo.
But workers would still be without jobs for the foreseeable future, he said. Still, he assured them, the union would pressure the owner to rehire them, adding the company violated labor laws by firing them for holding a work stoppage.
“You’re still all fired. We’ll still have to fight to get your jobs back,” he told them.
A nameplate on the doorway next to Sunny Day reads Hispanic American Car Wash Owner’s Association Inc. The company, located on the second floor above the car wash, is registered to Frank Roman, Sunny Day’s owner. The accompanying insignia on the door reads “Honesty, integrity and knowledge.” No one answered the door.
This story was updated to clarify that the strike is the latest in a number of actions taken by car wash workers statewide in the WASH New York campaign, not the first.