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Carwash workers file class action against L.A.-area owners

Workers allege that overtime pay was withheld and breaks were denied at carwashes in Venice, Santa Monica and Lakewood.

May 22, 2012|By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times
  • Carwash workers, community activists and members of the clergy gather for a peaceful protest in front of the Santa Monica Car Wash on Pico Boulevard. as class action lawsuit was announced.
Carwash workers, community activists and members of the clergy gather… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Four carwash workers filed suit Monday claiming that a family of carwash owners routinely withheld pay for overtime and denied them breaks during the summer.

The lawsuit is one of a series filed on behalf of carwash workers since 2008 in an attempt by unions and immigrant advocates to improve conditions in an industry in which competition is fierce, profit margins are low and workers are often undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

A Times report on the industry found it rife with nonpayment of overtime, false pay records and other abuses.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the lawsuit in L.A. County Superior Court on behalf of four workers at carwashes owned by Bijan, Edna and Kambiz Damavandi. The class action suit alleges that they forced employees to arrive for work early but only clock in when there were enough cars to wash.

According to the lawsuit, the family owns three carwashes: Lincoln Millennium Car Wash, at 2454 Lincoln Blvd. in Venice; Santa Monica Car Wash, at 2510 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica; and Bumble Bee Car Wash, at 2711 Del Amo Blvd. in Lakewood.

At a press conference outside Santa Monica Car Wash, plaintiffs contended the Damavandi family did not allow workers proper breaks for water and lunch.

"They'd often insult you to get you to work faster," said Marcial Hernandez, who worked at Lincoln Millennium Car Wash for eight years before quitting. Hernandez said he often worked 50 hours a week and was paid for 40.

Victor Viramontes, a MALDEF attorney, said he expected past and present Damavandi employees to be included in the suit and that there would be more than 100 parties. Damages sought for unpaid wages could run "into the seven figures," he said.

A manager of the Santa Monica Car Wash, identified as a son of the owners but who declined to give his name, said he would have no comment.

The lawsuit comes as efforts to improve working conditions for carwash workers seem to be gaining momentum.

In January, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris announced a $1-million settlement of a lawsuit in favor of workers at eight carwashes across the state. Owners at the carwashes in Northern and Southern California were alleged to have not paid overtime, falsified payment records, and denied workers rest and meal breaks.

In October, more than 30 carwash workers won a union contract from Bonus Car Wash, at 2800 Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica.

At Monday's news conference, Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, urged carwash customers to patronize Bonus, "the nation's first union car wash."

So far, the campaign to help the "carwasheros" appears to have gained strongest support among liberal groups on the Westside. At the press conference, workers and their MALDEF attorneys were joined by clergy, unions and area political leaders.

"We're not just fighting for workers' rights," said Oscar de la Torre, a Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District board member. "We're fighting for the families they support. We can't support industries that perpetuate poverty and poverty wages."

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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