The problems are hidden in plain sight. Carwashes dot nearly every Southern California neighborhood, but workers often are paid off the books. Regulators tend to visit carwashes infrequently, and they hold employers to account even less often.
Nearly a quarter of carwashes inspected in the last five years were not itemizing payroll deductions, suggesting not only that they might not have been paying minimum wage but that the government was losing significant tax revenue.
Thin profit margins
In Southern California, each carwash grosses an average of nearly $1 million a year, according to the Western Carwash Assn., an industry trade group. But legitimate operators typically run on 8% to 10% profit margins and sometimes struggle to make payroll, said Randy Cressall, a board member of the association and owner of Valencia Auto Spa in Valencia.
Operators who skirt minimum-wage and other laws -- a minority, according to Cressall -- make it tough to compete.
His association actually supports increasing fines as much as threefold so that they are not accepted as merely a cost of doing business.
"We still allow people to operate cheaper illegally, even faced with fines, than legally," he said. "Large carwashes can save $5,000 or $10,000, at least, a month by not abiding by the law."
He has advice for customers as well: Shun carwashes that offer a complete cleaning, inside and out, for as little as $5.
Fares Ennabe, the Honduran immigrant owner of Western & Fourth Car Wash in Koreatown, said owners are just trying to give customers what they want.
"People here want good quality, and cheap," said Ennabe, who in 2005 and 2006 paid three settlements totaling $42,500 to workers who claimed he did not pay minimum wage, records show.
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.
On a fall day at Pico Car Wash, a steady flow of vehicles rolled through the wash's tunnel, pulled along by a chain as workers rushed to soap them up.
"The chain doesn't stop," said Erick Garcia, a secador, or dryer. He has done every job at Pico, which has settled five individual wage claims totaling nearly $22,000 since 2000 and is embroiled in a lawsuit over wages by 13 workers, including Garcia.
Soapers, or jaboneros, wash 500 cars on the busiest days, crouching to brush wheel rims and climbing to scour SUV roofs, Garcia said.
"Your hands have to be like lightning," swiftly lathering one side in less than two minutes as the boss expects, Garcia said.
After a worker parked dripping cars in a line, a sweating Garcia toweled off one after another. As customers waited in the shade, he wiped the interiors of vehicles cooked uncomfortably hot by the midday sun, then sprayed degreaser on the wheel rims. He and the other workers, about a dozen men ranging in age from about 20 to 40, wore baseball caps over wet rags on their heads to keep from overheating.
Time was everything. Garcia's boss, inside an air-conditioned office adorned with a "God Bless America" banner, watched his workers on security monitors. And Garcia said he didn't want customers to complain or hold back on his tip.
By comparison with some of his co-workers' jobs, his was easy. He pointed toward the entrance of the carwash, where vacumeros were suctioning dust out of carpets and plucking out debris, including rotten food, matted dog hair and used condoms.
"You spend all day stooped over," said Garcia, who spent his first year at the wash as a vacumero. His back would spasm as he bicycled home after 11-hour days.
The owner, Ho, said his workers are exaggerating. "They are trying to rip me off," said Ho, who emigrated from South Korea in 1979. He called many of his workers lazy.
"I try to treat employees better than at any other carwash."
Drying by hand
Elsewhere in the country, most carwashes are automated, requiring few workers. But in Southern California, hand carwashes proliferated in the 1990s, fueled by a large influx of cheap immigrant workers and low start-up costs. (Such carwashes sometimes use machinery to soap cars but rely on people to dry them by hand.)
Many of the business owners are legal immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. Kevin Kish, an attorney with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a nonprofit agency that provides low-wage workers free legal help, said the new owners often brought from their homelands a cavalier attitude toward the law and a tendency to treat workers almost like property.
Many Latino immigrants, particularly those newly arrived, find working at a carwash preferable to the uncertainty of day labor and are happy to earn many times what they can back home.
An aggrieved worker, however, has limited options for redress.
He can rely on state inspectors to fine owners for problems on the job. Or he can seek back pay through a lawsuit or a wage claim, which involves administrative proceedings.