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Is My Car Wash Ripping Off Its Workers?

How can you tell if the owner of your favorite car wash is underpaying the workers who clean your car?

The people, mostly men, who work in car washes are, by all accounts, some of the most likely workers to suffer so-called "wage theft." Many are paid less than minimum wage, receive no additional pay for overtime, and are sometimes not paid at all, with tips as their only compensation.

These workers are protected by various federal and state laws regulating minimum wage, overtime pay and other labor standards. Still, violations are rampant. So much so, that California created a special law, popularly known as the California Car Wash Workers law, to regulate the business that employ such workers.

Under the law, car washes and car polishing businesses are required to register with the state, or face fines of up to $10,000. The businesses must provide proof they have worker's compensation insurance, and they must post a surety bond that can be used to pay workers in the event the operator is found to owe extra wages. Finally, they must document all hours worked by and wage paid to employees.

According to records kept by the state's Dept. of Industrial Relations there are 337 car washes registered in LA County, and another 109 in Orange County. Still, compliance remains a problem. In the past two years, car wash operators were fined more than $10 million for labor violations, and the bulk of that - some $6 million - was in fines for businesses that had failed to register with the state.

Is there any way to tell if the place where you get your car washed is exploiting its workers? Insiders say one almost sure bet is any place that is charging significantly less than the competition.

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