Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Car Wash Dilemma

According to a 2005 survey by the International Carwash Assn., nearly two-thirds of motorists nationwide used carwashes, often going four to six times a year. In car-obsessed Southern California, the numbers might be higher. I'm no exception. (I live in an apartment complex and I have no access to a water hose to wash my own car.)

I just recently got my car washed for $6.99 with a coupon and I wonder whether I shouldn't have. This March 23, 2008 Los Angeles Times article still haunts me.

The Times' investigation found:

Hand carwashes – automotive beauty shops patronized by tens of thousands of Southern California motorists every day – often brazenly violate basic labor and immigration laws with little risk of penalty.

Half or more of carwash owners flout the minimum-wage law, estimated David Dorame, the longtime lead investigator for low-wage industries at California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.


From Santa Monica to Westwood to Koreatown, many workers said they received only tips for some or all of their shifts. Labor division inspectors estimated that about 10% to 20% of car dryers are not paid by owners.

“Tips only” is a requirement for some new workers until owners are satisfied that they can properly dry a car, laborers said. Their take is typically $10 to $30 a day.

In the same article, an owner of a legally operated car wash complained that operators typically run on 8% to 10% profit margin making it very difficult to compete with illegal operators. Even with fines, illegal operators save thousands of dollars by breaking labor laws.

The owner of the legal carwash has this advice for customers: Shun carwashes that offer a complete cleaning, inside and out, for as little as $5.

When it comes to carwashes, my frugality competes with my desire to have workers be paid minimum wage (regardless of the worker's immigration status). I wonder whether the owner of my carwash is able to offer such a cut-rate price by stiffing his laborers? (The carwash normally charges $11 without a coupon. But I am assuming that most of the patrons use a coupon since it is issued pretty regularly in the Penny Saver.)

I guess I could have asked the workers, "Are you being paid minimum wage?", but I chickened out. Also, as the article indicates, many of these workers do not want to discuss their wages for fear of retribution.

I justified my most recent trip with the fact that I tipped generously (i.e., $2 to the vacuum guys and $8 to the dryer = $10 total). (According to this tipping etiquette website, I'm only required to tip about $2-3 for my car.)

But this doesn't change the fact that if the owner is indeed underpaying its laborers, I've just helped keep an illegal operation afloat. (Of course, if the employees are paid minimum wage, I'm working myself into a tizzy for no reason.)

Also, patronizing a more expensive car wash does not guarantee that laborers are paid minimum wage either.

I want to do the right thing but I also don't want to pay more than I need to for a clean car. I just wish there was an easier way to balance my competing needs.


MoneyMate Kate said...

I have the same dilemma with manicures/pedicures. I'm in Manhattan, and can't fathom how the hole-in-the-wall nail salons offering $25 mani-pedis are making rent unless the staff is working for just tips. Yes, they're probably illegal, but with the exception of one bad experience, they've all been well-trained and hygienic. I keep my conscience clear by tipping double the norm, because I hate the thought of someone whose job it is to make me look and feel good struggling so hard to make it. But maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age.

Shtinkykat said...

Sigh. You're right that it's not limited to carwashes. But this problem is probably prevalent in the service industry. It may be that without proof of one of another, all we can really do is to treat the service worker with respect and tip them well. I wonder whether this problem will be resolved if the law required living wages like Europe and Australia?