Chanting slogans like “The people united shall never be defeated,” in English and Spanish, waving signs and beating on makeshift drums made out of overturned plastic buckets, more than 50 people rallied outside Sutphin Car Wash in Jamaica last Thursday for improved working conditions. Workers there say they are paid poorly, mistreated and intimidated by management.
Sutphin Car Wash at 97-31 Sutphin Blvd. is part of a chain of such businesses operated by Fernando Magalhaes, who was reportedly subpoenaed earlier this month by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman following claims of wage and hour violations, and unsafe working conditions.
“We know that this fight is not going to be easy or over quickly,” said Jean Sassine, chairman of the Queens chapter of New York Communities for Change, adding “What’s been going on here is a sin. The way this car wash and others like it have been treating their workers is sinful and shameful.”
The workers’ demands include better pay — at least the minimum wage of $7.25 — protective gear to prevent sickness or work-related injury, respect, health benefits including paid sick days, and the ceasing of illegal retaliations such as cutting the hours of workers who complain.
The only car wash worker to speak at the rally was David de La Cruz Perez, 41, of Jamaica, who said he has been there for five years. “They treat us really poorly,” he said through a translator. “They yell at us sometimes, and they also don’t give us a fair salary. They pay us about $5.50 an hour, which is less than the minimum wage.”
Under the New York State Labor Law, an employer can pay a worker less than the minimum wage if the remaining portion is made up by tips, however the employer is required to prove that workers received such money and give the employees, at or before the time of hiring, written notice that he or she will apply a tip credit toward their minimum wage.
Hillary Klein, lead organizer of Make the Road, said the car wash workers have told them that their tips don’t always add up to the hourly minimum wage and that the owner doesn’t fill in the difference.
De La Cruz Perez also said when he hurt his hand on the job and had to take off six months, his boss did not make any effort to help him. His brother had to pay his rent and buy him food.
Under the state law, workers who are injured on the job are entitled to receive some of their lost wages and to have all related medical costs paid in exchange for agreeing not to hold the employer liable for the injury or file a lawsuit against them.
Klein said de La Cruz Perez applied for compensation, but only received a small amount.
“I would like to thank all of you here today for supporting us,” de La Cruz Perez said, before picking up a washcloth and going back to work cleaning cars.
In addition to NYCC, the workers were joined by clergy, members of Make the Road New York, Workers Aligned for a Sustainable and Healthy New York and City Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), chairman of the council’s Labor Committee.
“Brother Fernando, we don’t want a dirty conscience, just to get a clean car,” Sanders said. “We believe that New York City needs to clean up its act. We believe that everyone in New York can earn a decent living and take care of their families if we are united.”
The Rev. Darrell Da Costa, of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Corona, expressed similar sentiments, calling on Magalhaes to do the right thing on behalf of his workers. “If there is injustice for one, there is injustice for all,” Da Costa said.
Magalhaes was not present during the rally, but a worker there, whose name tag identified him as Santiago, took the list of demands from Sanders and said he would pass them along to the owner.
“We did ask Fernando Magalhaes to be here,” Klein said. “We communicated with him ahead of time, but he’s not here today. So, it’s clear to us at this point, at least, he’s not willing to hear from us directly, or respond to us directly.” Magalhaes could not be reached for comment by press time.