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Ex-carwash worker wins $80,000 lawsuit over labor violations [Updated]

June 23, 2011 |  3:34 pm

Members of the Clean Carwash Campaign picket outside a Hollywood carwash in 2009.

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

A former Los Angeles carwash worker has won an $80,000 lawsuit charging that his ex-employers forced him for years to show up for work early in the morning but barred him from clocking in until hours later.

Tomas Rodriguez , 41, of Hidalgo, Mexico, filed the lawsuit in October against Handy J Carwash in the 12000 block of West Washington Boulevard.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney ruled recently that the owners -- Shariar Shoehed, Rafi Shoehed, Scott Arditi and carwash manager Juan Lucatero -- were liable for $50,000 in back wages for failing to provide proper employment records and an additional $30,000 in damages.

In a telephone interview, Rodriguez said his and his co-workers’ hours were reduced several years ago after the owners brought in others to work only for tips.

“With fewer hours, I didn’t make enough to eat or pay the rent,” he said, adding that he resorted to collecting recyclable cans, bottles and metal to make ends meet.

He said the owners intimidated workers with threats of firing and calling federal immigration officials.

“At the time, I didn’t know much about my rights. You come from your country with your eyes closed,” Rodriguez said. “They had us all intimidated.”

Eight other workers involved in the suit eventually dropped out due to the intimidation, he said.

“This is really a chronic practice in the carwash industry,” said Chloe Osmer, organizer with the Clean Carwash Campaign, a three-year effort by unions to organize carwash workers. “Workers are asked to show up early in the morning but they’re not allowed to clock in for two or three hours.”

“This is why the state of California is bankrupt, because of frivolous lawsuits,” said Arditi, a Handy J owner.

Arditi said the owners had provided biweekly pay documents for more than five years of Rodriguez’s employment.

“He didn’t provide single shred of evidence … and the judge bought it,” Arditi said. “Unfortunately more businesses are being driven out of business by extortionate, frivolous lawsuits. There’s a lot of ambulance-chasing lawyers out there.”

[Updated, 7:07 p.m., June 23: In a follow-up letter to The Times, Arditi wrote that Rodriguez signed a release every time he received his paycheck, which stated that the check was a “full payment for all his hours worked and that he has no further claims.”

“We do not owe any of our employees for time worked including Mr. Rodriguez. All our employees get paid in full for all their time worked as they should,” he wrote. “Mr. Rodriguez is an unscrupulous liar ...  his full time job is to picket carwashes on behalf of unions who are trying to organize carwashes in California."]

In 2008, a Times investigation found that carwash owners frequently violated immigration laws and state labor laws by hiring illegal immigrants and paying them well below minimum wage and sometimes forcing them to work only for tips.

The Times found that two-thirds of carwashes inspected between 2003 and 2008 were out of compliance with one or more state labor laws -- considered by regulators to be the worst record among the state's low-wage industries, including agriculture and garment manufacturing.

These violations included underpaying workers, hiring minors, going without workers' compensation insurance and denying meal breaks.

For the record, 7:15 a.m., June 24: A previous version of this post stated that Ramirez was awarded $85,000. It was $80,000.


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Photo: Members of the Clean Carwash Campaign picket outside a Hollywood carwash in 2009. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times