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Car Wash Graduates Brush Up On Labor Laws While Perfecting Their Craft

A car wash worker wearing a tan shirt, bucket hat and a black mask wipes down a windshield with a blue rag.
Rodrigo Hernandez finishes up a car after washing it outside of the CLEAN Carwash Worker Center, in Los Angeles on July 21, 2022.
(Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters)
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Twenty-two car wash workers graduated from the CLEAN Carwash Worker Center's detail program last week. Over the course of 10 weeks, the graduates learned the ins and outs of detailing a car, how to remove stains — and their rights as workers.

Fighting a prevailing wage theft problem

Los Angeles County has over 10,000 car wash workers, according to Flor Rodriguez, the CLEAN Carwash Worker Center's executive director. She said nearly all of the nonprofit's 1,800 members have experienced some form of wage theft.

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"Low-wage industries really prevail on wage theft," Rodriguez said. "And the fact that workers don't know about their rights makes it easier to be taken advantage of. So, part of our goal is to make sure that the workers feel seen, that they are heard and that they know how to go about it when their rights are being violated."

The people most susceptible to wage theft are often immigrants who have little education and are facing economic hardship. Last year, California workers filed nearly 19,000 claims worth more than $338 million in stolen wages, according to CalMatters. Locally, a Torrance car wash was fined more than $800,000 for wage theft in 2022. Rodriguez said the detail program is "a response to a need in the industry and in in our community."

The program's backstory

The CLEAN Carwash Worker Center's auto detail program runs twice a year in collaboration with UCLA's labor occupational safety and health program. It's led by car wash workers with decades of experience. Attendees learn how to polish by hand and with a machine, how to remove stains and gum from seats and the day-to-day of running a business and in between. Rodriguez said they also learn about workers' rights.

"They really want to change the industry from within, by using green products and following labor laws," she said. "[These] are the programs that really need to be seen and funded."

A new round of graduates is expected in October.

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