Photo courtesy of Justin Yost (Flickr)

Every day, the employees at Tower Car Wash would get dressed, come to work and wait. Not showing up when the car wash opened would result in getting fired, but if they did show up on time, they were only allowed to punch in if there was enough work for them. They would sit together in a windowless room, often for hours, waiting to be called to actually work a shift.

Or so says the city attorney’s office, which filed a lawsuit against Tower in San Francisco Superior Court yesterday morning for violating state and local employment laws. “It’s not every day that the city sues a car wash for $3 million,” said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “But this is a little bit of a clever tactic that they think they’re getting away with. It’s the first case regarding the minimum wage ordinance where the books are going to show that the owners were paying minimum wage. And this could involve hundreds of employees.”

At 5 p.m. yesterday, Tower was bustling with rush hour traffic. Dozens of employees in neat blue work clothes surrounded cars as they pulled onto the lot — each spraying, wiping and waxing, working three to a car. No one, from the manager on down, wanted to talk about the lawsuit. “We are working,” one man said, in Spanish, as he wiped the car to mirror-like brightness.

Car washes, which see most of their customers during just a few hours of the day, and which often employ recent immigrants not especially well versed in local employment laws, are particularly prone to labor violations, according to Donna Leavitt of San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement. Some workers understand their rights, Leavitt said. Some don’t.

The case came to the attention of the Office of Labor Standards when Tower was reported for exploiting a loophole in the Healthy San Francisco program to funnel money that city law required to be set aside for employees’ health care expenditures back into its own accounts.

As office representatives began interviewing workers, they heard that Tower was requiring its employees to be on site even if they weren’t clocked in or being paid. If, as the numbers suggested, the average worker was spending four to six hours per week uncompensated, Tower was in violation not only of state and city minimum wage laws (because employees were not being compensated for all the hours they were working), but also the state’s unfair competition law (because this practice made Tower’s operating costs much lower than those of car washes that were following the law).

San Francisco is the only city in the country with an office dedicated to labor law enforcement. A measure passed earlier this month will grant city labor law investigators powers similar to those held by health inspectors — they’ll be able to make unannounced inspections, cite employers immediately for violations, and require them to post a notice to the public when cited for violating wage laws.

If Tower is found guilty, it stands to pay compensation for the lost wages, labor law violation penalties, and the costs incurred by the city attorney’s office. It is also likely to lose its contract to wash city vehicles, which amounted to $59,106 in revenue over the last fiscal year. It’s also possible that the case will be settled out of court. Less than 2 percent of the cases filed in civil court ever go to trial. Some civil court lawyers will go a full decade before going to trial.

Meanwhile, many of the workers involved in the suit are still at Tower, washing cars. One employee spoke with reporters at a press conference earlier today, but according to Hegé, the city attorney will be able to bring suit and protect the anonymity of the witnesses for some time. A letter written yesterday by the city attorney’s office to Tower’s owners, Igor Paskhover, Vladimir and Lisa Syelsky, and Steve Matijevich of Vladigor Investments, Inc., reads:

“We have already learned that management at Tower has been attempting to learn whether any employees have cooperated with us in our investigation. Therefore, I am writing to inform you, in the most emphatic possible terms, that it is illegal to threaten employees or to retaliate against them for asserting their workplace rights. We will be watching you closely.”

Many thanks to Octavio Lopez Raygoza for the reporting he contributed to this story.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. This is all bull-pucky

    I worked at Tower Car Wash from 2004-2008, and I can tell you that this story is total BS. I was a washer and detailer, and this so-called “windowless room” is a small “employee lounge” (true that is has no windows) area where employees can sit, if the wish. Management never forced me, or anyone else during my years at Tower to arrive at a pre-determined time and wait hours to clock in. Total BS here. If my schedule had me arrive at 8AM I would clock in on arrival, even if there were no cars on the lot. The only time that the schedule was fluid was in periods of rain, when we were told to phone in to see when we would need to report for work.

    1. The 6th word of the article links directly to their web site, where you can see the address.