Dozens of car wash workers received their final checks after a long fight with a former employer, on Monday. The workers – 88 in total – have spent eight years trying to get their former boss, José Vázquez, to pay them properly and make amends for the long hours they worked under sometimes strenuous conditions.
Steven Arenson, a lawyer with the law firm Arenson, Dittmar, and Karban, presented the last round of checks for the 88 people on Monday morning. Dozens of the former workers were in attendance, including some who were receiving their checks for the first time. A group of the 22 workers had yet to receive their first check because they are undocumented.
“All of these men [behind me] worked 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, for $3.50, $4, $5 an hour,” Arenson says, “The minimum wage laws were ignored. The overtime laws were ignored. No designated lunch breaks.”
Vázquez was the former owner of J.V. Car Wash, which had two locations in Manhattan, one in the Bronx and one in Elizabeth, N.J. Most employees worked six to seven days a week, they claimed. Many of them worked at the car washes for 8 to 20 years.
“In the freezing cold of January, in the burning heat of July, these men stood on their feet 12 hours a day to wash cars so that the owner could reap a weekly harvest of cash that enriched him and essentially impoverished these workers,” Arenson said.
The case began in late 2010, when two workers came into Arenson’s office and detailed the difficult work conditions they were enduring.
According to Arenson, Vázquez did everything in his power to ‘delay, distract, and derail’ the litigation including firing lawyers to reschedule court appearances and filing a bogus bankruptcy claim, hoping it would dissuade the earlier workers from moving forward, even though he owned over $25 million in real estate at the time. The court agreed to allow the litigation to move forward amidst the bankruptcy claim and they settled the night before the trial was set to begin for $3.1 million. $1.65 million went directly to the eighteen workers.
After the first settlement, many other workers from the car wash had similar claims and wanted to bring lawsuits against Vázquez. But they were barred by the bankruptcy claim. That was until November, 2016 when court-appointed trustees took over management of Vázquez’s business and noticed there were more workers who had claims similar to the first eighteen workers. The bankruptcy judge sent out a notice informing all the workers that they had the opportunity to resubmit their claims: 88 workers filed claims.
After years of litigation over whether their claims were legitimate and how much they were worth, the 88 workers settled for $6.14 million. All the workers are receiving checks of $75,000 or more. The undocumented workers waited longer for their money as they needed to apply for IRS identification numbers and now have all the withholdings of a documented worker.
“This is life-changing money. They are using this money to better their lives,” Arenson said.
Vázquez did not pay taxes while being the owner of J.V. Car Wash for years. His bankruptcy turned out to be a farce when he refused to work with authorities to protect his “bankrupted” business and turn over his assets. After Newark police raided his home, they found over $1 million in cash in a safe. In order to pay for the debt Vázquez owed, the court sold all four car wash locations effectively putting him out of business.
The workers detailed how the job took a physical toll.
Fred, a worker originally from Nigeria, worked at the car wash since 1997. Fred usually had to travel to the New Jersey location and work until 6 pm. He was only paid $30-$40 per day and spent three hours driving back and forth. Fred also said Vázquez would sometimes hit him in the head.
“I suffered burns on my arm due to chemicals that were sprayed,” Fred said.
Juan Remigio Licona, a worker originally from Mexico, recalled having to clean an underground pit filled with dirt and sand, causing him to have difficulty breathing. “I was breathing in air coming from the dirt in the water and sand,” Licona said, “I told the manager that day to take me out because I could not stand it anymore and could not breathe.”
The manager responded, “No! Do not take him out [of the pit]. Leave him in there.”
Licona said he started getting blurry vision and did not leave the pit until his friend Luis, who was standing next to him at the conference threw down a ladder so he could get out. The manager kept insisting they leave Licona in the pit until he finished the job. Licona says he faced emotional abuse while working at the car wash.
When Agustín Bencosme, another ex-worker recalled the hardest days while working at the car wash, he said, “The cold days. Imagine we had to work outside all the time because there was no roof; you had to withstand temperatures like 6`F, 8`F, 12`F.”
Bencosme continued, “The money is a blessing, and we all deserve it.”
Oscar was 16-years-old when he began working at the car wash alongside his father and brother who have returned to Mexico. All three men received individual checks. “The situation in Mexico is difficult and this money will help all of us,” Oscar said.
According to Amerson, Vázquez had more than enough money to pay his workers. Minimum wage in New York City was $7.25 at the time these abuses happened. All were paid less than the minimum wage. None were paid overtime which most were forced to do.
Amerson says the message he wants people to take away from this case is to not be afraid. “It does not matter if you have papers or you don’t have papers, all undocumented workers have the same rights as documented workers. You have rights.”
“This is a very important day for workers in this city, this country, and the whole world. Justice is possible in this country.”
In total, 106 former workers have filed suits against J.V. Car Wash. The total amount of settlements from the suits exceeds $9.4 million, the largest recovery ever achieved for car wash workers.