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Criminal charges filed against car wash owners

February 10, 2009 |  5:08 pm

Workers at Vermont Hand Wash peer out at demonstrators who are protesting unfair labor practices by several car wash facilities.

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo filed criminal charges today against the owners and manager of four Los Angeles car washes, accusing them of failure to pay proper wages or allow breaks.

Delgadillo also charged one of the managers with brandishing a club and machete to threaten workers attempting to organize a union.

Owners Benny and Nissan Pirian and manager Manuel Reyes were charged with 172 counts of violating criminal and labor laws for their treatment of workers at Hollywood Five Star Car Wash in Northridge, Vermont Hand Wash in Los Feliz and Celebrity Car Wash and Hollywood Car Wash, both in Hollywood.

The workers were paid a flat rate of $35 to $40 a day, violating minimum wage laws, prosecutors said. Some worked for tips alone.

The city attorney's office did not name the workers in the suit.

"In this city, we will hold to account and prosecute those who cheat or abuse their employees," Delgadillo said. His staff said the office has filed other suits against employers, but this is the first against a car wash.

The Pirians' lawyer did not respond to a call seeking comment; Reyes denied any wrongdoing.

"Why would I intimidate anybody?" Reyes asked in Spanish during a telephone interview at the Los Feliz car wash Tuesday afternoon. "It doesn't have any effect on me. If someone wants to join a union, that's a personal choice."

The AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers are trying to organize local car wash workers, whose unsuitable wages and working conditions are notorious. They said the Pirians have fired employees in retaliation.

"People come here to find a better life," said Israel Jimenez, 39, who left a computer sales job in Guatemala to come to Los Angeles in 2004, leaving behind his wife and two children. "We just want to work and make a bit of money so we can support our families."

Once in Los Angeles, Jimenez got a job at Vermont Hand Wash through a relative and kept working there until he was fired late last year.

He said after the unions began talking to workers, management began reducing hours and pay and gave union sympathizers poor jobs without access to tips, which make up the bulk of the workers' pay.

At some locations, only recycled water was available to them during the long shifts, he said. If they wanted potable water, they had to buy bottled water from the concession stand, for $1.50 to $2.

According to the criminal complaint, Reyes, the manager of the Los Feliz site, once brandished a machete and another time a club to intimidate workers. He was charged with witness intimidation and brandishing a deadly weapon, which carry a maximum sentence of 2 ½ years in county jail.

On Tuesday he said he had not been arrested or seen the charges. The criminal charges follow a number of lawsuits filed against the Pirians by the nonprofit Bet Tzedek.

The first suit, filed in 2005, alleged violation of labor laws, including wage and hour and overtime laws. It was settled.

In May, the firm sued the Pirians again, alleging wage and hour and overtime violations.

Bet Tzedek is seeking class action status for about 300 current and former employees.

"It's the exact same thing," sighed Kevin Kish, director of Bet Tzedek's Employment Rights Project. "We deal with a lot of industries where there are a lot of unrepentant employers. I'm a little surprised at the level of unrepentance here."

--Evelyn Larrubia

Photo: Workers at Vermont Hand Wash peer out at demonstrators who are protesting unfair labor practices by several car wash facilities. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times