Employees of Chicago-area car washes are paid below the state-mandated minimum wage and rarely given overtime, according to a new report from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
A survey was given to 204 car wash workers—one-third of the total Chicago-area car wash workforce, according to the report. They represented 57 different car washes, were largely immigrants and had a median age of 34. Surveyors approached employees as they were leaving their shift.
Three-quarters of respondents earned below the minimum wage of $8.25 per hour, and less than 2 percent were paid the legal rate for overtime. The average pay was $6.59 per hour, and around 80 percent reported working more than 40 hours in the week prior to being surveyed.
These numbers resulted in missed wages of $84.87 on average in that previous work week, according to the report, or a total of more than $4,000 a year.
Robert Bruno, professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the university, headed the study. He said the School of Labor and Employment Relations often focuses studies on low-wage workforces and had done a similar report on cab drivers a few years ago.
He said the car wash results reveal an industry standard.
"The big takeaway is that these bad practices, these large wage violations and these dangerous work places are standard practices," Bruno said. "We're not just looking at the worst apples or a small percentage of workplaces and employers."
The survey also found a lack of safety precautions. More than 80 percent said they lacked protective equipment, and about 40 percent said they had been cut on the job. Bruno said some workers reported losing thumbs or close interaction with hazardous chemicals.
The study also noted that car wash employees are living well below the poverty level. About 63 percent of those surveyed were married or living with a partner and were supporting an average of 2.5 dependents. A quarter of those who responded earned less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level, a measure of extreme poverty.
Robert Pecora, 43, is the owner of Simply Solutions, a Crestwood, Illinois-based car wash supplier, and president of the Chicagoland Carwash Association. He described the results of the report as skewed.
"If you're a business owner and you have an investment in a business, don't you think you're going to do everything you possibly can to ensure the safety of your employees so that you don't have a large insurance claim?" he said.
He went on to note that the businesses he's worked with in the association pay minimum wage "or more" and treat employees fairly.
"I don't know anybody that participates in these types of practices, so for someone to try to say that this is the norm is just ridiculous," Pecora said.
Anjali Julka, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Labor, said the state has brought 17 cases against car washes over the past five years for minimum wage violations. Of those 17, 14 have been completed, resulting in $37,832 in back wages recovered. The department is currently pursuing an additional amount of $8,882 in back wages in the three other cases.