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Four workers sue carwash owners over job conditions

May 21, 2012 |  1:30 pm

Carwash workers, community activists and members of the clergy gather for a peaceful protest in front of the Santa Monica Car Wash on May 21.

Four carwash workers filed a lawsuit Monday claiming a family of carwash owners routinely withheld pay for overtime and denied them breaks during the summer.

The lawsuit is one of a series filed on behalf of carwash workers since 2008 in an attempt by unions and immigrant advocates to improve conditions in an industry where competition is fierce, profit margins are low, and workers are often undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

A Times report on the industry found it rife with nonpayment of overtime, false pay records and other abuses.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed Monday’s class-action lawsuit on behalf of four workers at carwashes owned by Bijan, Edna and Kambiz Damavandi, alleging the family forced workers to arrive to work early but only clock in when there were enough cars to wash.

According to the lawsuit, the family owns three carwashes: Lincoln Millennium Car Wash, 2454 Lincoln Blvd. in Venice; Santa Monica Car Wash, 2510 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica; and Bumble Bee Car Wash, 2711 Del Amo Blvd. in Lakewood.

The lawsuit, announced at a press conference outside Santa Monica Car Wash, alleges that the Damavandi family also did not allow workers proper breaks for water and lunch.

“They’d often insult you to get you to work faster,” said Marcial Hernandez, a worker for eight years at Lincoln Millennium Car Wash. Hernandez said he often worked 50 hours a week and was paid for 40.

Victor Viramontes, a MALDEF attorney, said he expected the total number of Damavandi employees, past and present, to be included in the suit to reach well above 100. In that case, damages sought in unpaid wages could be well “into the seven figures,” he said.

A manager of the Santa Monica Car Wash, identified as a son of the owners, but who declined to give his name, said he would have no comment. “I have nothing to say,” he said.

The lawsuit comes as the movement to improve working conditions for carwash workers seems to be gaining momentum.

In January, Attorney General Kamala Harris announced a $1 million settlement of a lawsuit in favor of workers at eight carwashes across the state. Owners at the carwashes in Northern and Southern California were alleged to have not paid overtime, falsified payment records, and denied workers rest and meal breaks.

In October, more than 30 carwash workers won a union contract from Bonus Car Wash, on 2800 Lincoln Blvd.

At Monday’s news conference, Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, urged Santa Monica carwash customers to patronize Bonus, “the nation’s first union car wash.”

So far, the campaign to help the carwasheros seems to have gained strongest support among liberal groups on the Westside. At the press conference, workers and their MALDEF attorneys were joined by clergy, unions and political leaders from the area.

“We’re not just fighting for workers’ rights,” said Oscar de la Torre, a Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District board member. “We’re fighting for the families they support. We can’t support industries that perpetuate poverty and poverty wages.”


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Photo: Carwash workers, community activists and members of the clergy gather for a peaceful protest in front of the Santa Monica Car Wash on May 21. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is suing several Southern California carwashes over labor practices. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times