News Column

Car Wash Workers Claim Wage Theft, Abuse

June 1, 2012

Sandra Baltazar Martinez

At least 10 workers from a Santa Fe, N.M., car wash have filed complaints with the city alleging violations of its Living Wage Ordinance as well as wage-theft claims with the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

The men say they've put up with the wage abuse for years, but they are finally speaking up because they cannot tolerate the mental, physical and verbal abuse by Frank Mojarro, manager of the Squeaky Clean Car Wash, 1900 Cerrillos Road, and by the owner of the business, Jay Ritter.

There are hundreds of similar wage-theft claims in the files of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. But the department denied a request by The New Mexican to examine them, saying, "They are excepted from disclosure due to countervailing public policy."

Elizabeth Garcia, an attorney with the department's Office of the General Counsel, said its policy is not to disclose claims that have not been filed in Magistrate Court. The department did provide data showing hundreds of complaints submitted and millions of dollars recovered over the past five years from employers who did not pay fair wages.

A Santa Fe County Magistrate Court spokeswoman said, however, that there is no record of wage-theft cases before that court.

Ritter declined to speak with The New Mexican despite several attempts to reach him by phone and in person.

Ritter's attorney, George Adelo, called the claims "pathetic" and said that Squeaky Clean's records are impeccable.

But the workers, who formed a Squeaky Clean Workers Committee earlier this year, said that they've dealt with unpaid wages for years. Ten workers have sent Ritter two separate letters asking for better treatment, improved working conditions and the $10.29 hourly wage stipulated by the city ordinance.

Workers claim they are paid $9.50 per hour and that their checks do not accurately reflect the cash tips they have received. Yarco Martin Vidal's pay stubs, for example, show he was paid $9.50 an hour plus cash tips. One check indicates that Vidal, 33, received $116 in cash tips, but Vidal disputes that. And his colleagues support his statement.

"If floor mats go missing, if we're late, if we accidentally break something, we don't get any tips," the men said.

Tips left by customers are placed in a jar, but sometimes Ritter takes the money and keeps it "to pay the water bill," the workers said.

Squeaky Clean, according to the workers, compensates the customers for damages to their vehicles, but not through a company damage fund. "Jay asks us, 'Do you want to pay with cash, with your tips or with your check?' " said Jorge Porras, 22.

Porras had been employed at Squeaky Clean for more than four years when he severed the top third of his right ring finger at work a few months ago. He was off for four weeks. "I came back with stitches because [Ritter] said he wanted me back at work," Porras said. "I was in pain all day and my finger was constantly infected ... but I need the job, I have a family to support."

Luis Munoz, 20, said that last winter when he was cleaning a car and the floor was thick with ice, Ritter walked over and sprayed him with a water hose "for not moving fast enough." He worked the rest of the day in wet clothes.

Another worker, Jose Martinez, 23, said that Ritter and Mojarro do not respect their work schedules. On May 14, for example, Martinez said he was scheduled to work a full shift, but even though he was there, he was not allowed to clock in.

"I was there the entire day, seven hours, and I didn't work one single hour," Martinez said. "But we can't leave. We are forced to stay there just in case they need us."

Four of the workers interviewed by The New Mexican allege that Ritter and Mojarro are always threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they keep complaining about the working conditions.

Adelo dismissed all the allegations made by the workers and said that Ritter has been his friend and client for at least 15 years. "I have never, ever witnessed [Ritter] use physical or verbal abuse," he said. Workers are free to leave the car wash and find a job, but they stay, so their claims of abuse don't make sense, he added.

But, he said, "If they have to redo something, we tell them. There is no delicate way to do it."

In the first letter, sent April 18, 2012, the workers complained about verbal abuse and unsafe working conditions. The second letter, sent April 30, 2012, acknowledges that safety equipment such as gloves and goggles have been granted and, "You no longer scream at us and we feel more respect from our supervisors."

Squeaky Clean supervisors are now asking each worker to sign off on the cash tips they receive, the workers said.

Jenna Martinez, constituent services representative at the city manager's office, said that after receiving the complaints, she sent a letter to Ritter asking him to show proof of what he has been paying the workers. According to Martinez, Ritter's accountant sent over payroll documentation that satisfied the city attorney. If the workers can prove otherwise, then the city will continue investigating, she said.

So far the city has only received a handful of complaints regarding unpaid minimum wages and has prosecuted some employers, Martinez said.

A 2009 state law makes it a crime for employers to deny minimum wage and overtime wages to their employees. Since then, the New Mexico Division of Labor Relations has been receiving more than 1,000 complaints per year.

Other states have similar anti-wage theft laws. California's Department of Industrial Relations created a criminal investigation unit to specifically target employers who cheat their employees out of their wages.

According to the National Labor Relations Board -- which recently reached a settlement on behalf of employees of the former China Star Restaurant, which filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2011 -- workers have the right to organize at their workplaces and together ask that their wages and working conditions be improved.

Santa Fe Mayor David Coss said he has supported the minimum wage increase because it's a way to support working families and Santa Fe's own economy.

Coss said wage-law violators can be forced to pay back wages to workers.

"The city will investigate fully the complaints referred to us," Coss said, adding that if it needed additional resources to investigate a wage theft case, it could reach out to the federal Department of Labor.

Source: (c) 2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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