Owners of LA car washes sentenced to prison for wage violations

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Two brothers who own four Los Angeles car washes were each sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay $1.25 million in unpaid wages to 54 workers, in what the City Attorney's Office today called a "landmark'' plea deal.

"What occurred at the car washes doesn't fit the technical definition of 'indentured servitude,' but people worked for years without receiving minimum wage or overtime; they worked in hazardous conditions where they were regularly exposed to chemicals and not provided with safety equipment to prevent injury; they weren't provided with drinking water ... It was really a sweatshop,'' said Deputy City Attorney Julia Figueira-McDonough who helped prosecute the case.

Benny and Nissan Pirian each pleaded no contest Friday to a half-dozen criminal counts, including conspiracy and grand theft, and several labor code violations.

They were each sentenced to 365 days in jail and four years of probation, and ordered to pay restitution.

The brothers own Celebrity Car Wash and Hollywood Car Wash -- both in Hollywood -- as well as Five Star Car Wash in Northridge and Vermont Hand Wash in Los Feliz.

According to the criminal complaint, their workers received a flat rate of $35 to $40 a day -- far below the federal and state minimum wages -- and no overtime. A few workers were paid only with tips, according to city prosecutors.

The workers, who often labor in extreme heat, said they were also discouraged from taking breaks; were not provided with clean drinking water, safety gear or uniforms; and were threatened with physical harm when they reported the violations and tried to unionize.

According to McDonough, many of the workers do not speak English fluently and were unfamiliar with the legal system and their rights.

She said the 54 workers named in the criminal complaint will split the $1.25 million settlement. The amount that each will receive will be based on how long they worked for the brothers and how much they were underpaid, the prosecutor said.

"This is, by far, the biggest criminal case of its kind that we're aware of having been brought in this country,'' McDonough said, noting that previous prosecutions of wage theft usually result in only a few months of jail time and much smaller monetary awards to the victims.

The Pirian brothers are also facing a class-action lawsuit in civil court, which McDonough said could potentially allow all of their workers -- not just the 54 who filed the criminal complaint -- to also receive compensation.

As part of the plea deal, the car wash businesses' payroll and health and safety reports must be kept open for inspection at any time, according to the City Attorney's Office.

"It is a priority for the City Attorney's Office to focus on wage theft and the underground economy, and making sure people are paid for their work and ... that lawfully operating businesses are not put at a disadvantage by employers who cheat their workers,'' McDonough said.

KPCC's Brian Watt contributed audio to this report.