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Workers sue Melrose Avenue car wash over labor practices

A group of workers has filed suit against a Melrose Avenue car wash owner, seeking $500,000 in damages and alleging he failed to pay them for their hours worked.

The lawsuit, brought by nine workers at the Melrose Strip Auto Detailing and Car Wash at 7673 Melrose Ave., also claims owner Jae Choi didn’t pay workers overtime and didn’t give them breaks or time off when sick.

A manager of the car wash had no comment on the lawsuit, but said he would pass along a request for an interview to Choi and his attorneys. No one responded to the request for comment.

The lawsuit is the latest in an effort dating to 2008 by local unions to push car wash owners to clean up what worker advocates claim is widespread abusive labor treatment of the region’s car wash workers.

Clean Car Wash -– a union-sponsored campaign -– alleges many car washes routinely underpay their workers and deny them breaks.

Representatives of the car washes say any abuses are the exception and not the rule in an industry beset by low profit margins, fierce competition and intensely price-conscious consumers. Most workers in the industry are illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

The group of nine workers began organizing to form a union a year ago and the effort has grown to include half the car wash’s employees.

One worker, Alan Alonzo, an immigrant from Guatemala, said he was paid $37 for a 10-hour day for five years at Melrose Strip. Later, his salary was raised to $62 for the same hours -- still well below the minimum wage -- and was paid no overtime.

However, he said, when he and others began organizing a year ago, their hours were cut to three a day. Wages for those who did not organize were raised to $8 an hour for an eight-hour day, he said.

The workers have also filed an unfair labor-practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging retaliation, Alonzo said.

“We want to change everything in this car wash, because it isn’t normal,” he said. “We’re not slaves.”

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 -- Sam Quinones

twitter.com/samquinones7

 
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