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After experiencing wage theft, L.A. car washers started their own worker-owned business

The co-op, incubated by the Clean Car Wash Worker Center, wants to reshape the car wash industry in Los Angeles.

After experiencing wage theft, L.A. car washers started their own worker-owned business
[Photo: Clean Car Wash Worker Center]

Antonio Dominguez has been working at car washes for 22 years—and like many people doing the same work in car-centric Los Angeles, he’s repeatedly had his wages stolen by his employers. But Dominguez is now one of the founders of a new worker-owned cooperative car wash that wants to help reshape the industry.

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“In a co-op, we are the employers,” coowner Juan Hernandez said in a statement. “The profits we make stay with us so we can afford to spend more time with our families.”

[Photo: Clean Car Wash Worker Center]
The new business, a mobile car wash that will service fleets of cars in L.A., is being incubated by the Clean Car Wash Worker Center, an organization that started 15 years ago to help workers in the industry. In L.A. County alone, there are an estimated 10,000 “carwasheros” working at car washes.

[Photo: Clean Car Wash Worker Center]
“Some workers have reported not being able to get paid for the hours they work,” says Flor Rodriguez, executive director of the Clean Car Wash Worker Center. “Some workers have been working for tips only. Other workers have reported that they’re asked to come into work at 7 a.m., and not being allowed to clock in until the first car comes through the door. And on a foggy day in L.A., that could be 9, 10 in the morning. They’re expected to be there, but not allowed to clock in.” Injuries are common, along with heat stress from working under the hot sun.

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[Photo: Clean Car Wash Worker Center]
The nonprofit helps workers learn about their rights, and offers support when people want to talk to their managers to ask for changes. They also have partnered with the city and county governments to visit businesses and make sure that employers understand minimum-wage laws. Their outreach helped uncover conditions at one L.A.-area car wash that was recently fined more than $800,000 for wage theft. And while there are victories in the industry, workers also realized there was a need for a new business model.

[Photo: Clean Car Wash Worker Center]
Some employees had partnered to help train each other for advancement, learning auto-detailing skills so they could earn more than they would for a basic car wash. Then they decided to take the next step. “Workers came together and they said, Hey, all we’re missing is really to become owners of our own car wash,'” Rodriguez says. The nonprofit worked with UCLA and UC Irvine to learn about different business models, and then five workers joined together to form a limited liability company. The Seed Initiative Fund gave the business startup capital, and the nonprofit helped connect the founders to business training and other resources.

The business plans to focus on fleets of cars owned by nonprofits, governments, or large businesses rather than individual cars, though they’ll have a pop-up event each month for individuals who want to support the co-op. Servicing fleets is more stabile, Rodriguez says, so “this cooperative can really be the pathway for other workers to not only work in a safe space, but to actually have income mobility and income stability.” It’s also something that other car wash workers can join or copy. “The goal is that they’ll reach to be 10 owners, and then be able to hire employees,” she says. “And this is a model that can definitely be duplicated.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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