LA City Attorney files criminal complaint against four carwash owners

Workers at four Southland car washes have been complaining about pay and working conditions for more than a year now. They've tried to form a union, and sue their employers. Late Monday. Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo filed a criminal complaint against the owners of the car washes. He spoke about the complaint with KPCC's Brian Watt.

Brian Watt: The 176 count complaint names brothers Benny and Nissan Pirian and their four car washes in Hollywood, Los Feliz, and Northridge.

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo alleges some workers earned as little as $35 for eight hours of work – and that some worked just for tips. They received no overtime pay when they worked more, he says, and the managers discouraged the workers even from taking water breaks.

Rocky Delgadillo: And when they were given a water break, they were allowed to drink the water that came from the washing machine, discharged from the washing machine that they used to clean the dirty rags. They sent it through a filter, but I can tell you our victims say the water smelled bad, and certainly tastes bad.

Watt: Delgadillo says his office and the federal Department of Labor have been investigating the car washes for four months, interviewing workers who were willing to talk.

Delgadillo: One of the managers, Manuel Reyes, actually brandished a machete to intimidate these individuals to not cooperate with us in our investigation. If they did cooperate, the brave souls who did, their hours were reduced or their job was eliminated.

Watt: Jose Torres worked four years at the Vermont Hand Wash in Los Feliz. Last March, with support from labor organizers, he and other workers complained publicly about the pay and hazardous working conditions.

Jose Torres: En el trabajo, usamos chimicos muy fuertas como el acido...

Watt: At work, he said he used strong chemicals – acid and yellow soap. Sometimes his hands felt as if they were burning, and, he said, the car wash didn't provide protective gloves or masks. The city attorney's complaint alleges workers suffered acid burns and deep puncture wounds, and that the car wash owners never helped them get medical attention.

Less than two months after he spoke out against his employer, Jose Torres was fired. He and seven other workers filed a class action lawsuit against the Pirians. The car wash workers' attorney, Kevin Kish, said state agencies have fined the car washes for various safety violations.

Kevin Kish: None of this has been enough because things have not changed.

Watt: Benny and Nissan Pirian have denied that they've paid the car wash workers less than the minimum wage and discouraged rest breaks. They also say state regulators haven't imposed any fines on their businesses. The brothers have claimed the carwash workers have fallen under the influence of union organizers.

If convicted of all the charges in Rocky Delgadillo's complaint, the Pirians could face 86 years in county jail and $136,000 in fines. The city attorney is also seeking $450,000 in wages he says the workers should have earned.