After years of enduring mental abuse, discrimination and little to no pay, former car wash workers celebrated winning a lawsuit against their employer.
The two-year lawsuit against Caribbean Car Wash in Elizabeth ended on Thursday after 24 former workers received settlement checks as part of an unpaid wages million-dollar settlement.
The workers, mostly Spanish speakers, detailed in the lawsuit the unpaid overtime hours and multiple minimum wage violations under federal and state laws.
“It was hard work,” said Julio Ochoa who worked at the car wash for six years. “We didn’t have health care and we faced a lot of psychological abuse. We were paid $5 an hour and mistreated because of our race.”
A week after New Jersey toughened penalties for wage theft in 2019, the workers filed the class-action suit in U.S. District Court in Newark. They alleged Caribbean Car Wash and its operators failed to abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act and New Jersey Wage Payment Law by allowing managers to take the tips of workers, not follow record-keeping requirements and fail to maintain proper and complete payroll records.
But some workers didn’t want to be included in the lawsuit against their employer.
“When you’re dependent upon [your job] to support your family and perhaps to send money back to a family in another country, it’s very difficult and risky to bring a lawsuit,” said Steven Arenson of Arenson, Dittmar & Karban, the lead attorney representing the car wash workers in the case.
Among the workers was William Antunez who said he left his home country and his job as a journalist to pursue a better life in the United States.
“I worked with colleagues who passed away because they got sick due to the hard work,” said Antunez in Spanish. “There was so much pressure there.”
All of the workers were Spanish speakers and included one American who worked 10- to 12-hour days during periods between 2015 and 2018, earning $325 to $380 a week, according to the lawsuit.
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Some of the workers were paid as low as $5 to $7 an hour, below the New Jersey minimum wage. Currently, the minimum wage in New Jersey is $13 an hour and will increase each year by $1 until it reaches $15 in 2024. In 2019, when the lawsuit was brought forth, the minimum wage was $8.85 an hour.
Under this settlement, a number of the workers will receive more than $40,000, with some getting more than $50,000, Arenson said.
“The law says if [employers] have to pay in a lump sum, they have to pay three times as much,” Arenson said. “That means $10,000 becomes $30,000, it’s called liquidated damages or penalties.”‘
In August 2019, shortly before the case was filed, the state amended its Wage and Hour Law to toughen the penalties imposed on employers who commit wage theft and to allow workers to recover unpaid wages going back six years, lengthening the two-year claim period under the old law. Some of the workers who filed the lawsuit stopped working for the car wash for more than two years before filing the lawsuit. They would not have been able to recover money under New Jersey’s pre-2019 law.
“Life has smiled upon me,” said Ochoa who is now an Uber Eats delivery driver. “For me, this was a dark history but justice was served and we were given what they robbed us of.”
Jessie Gomez is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com and NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Caribbean Car Wash employees receive unpaid wage lawsuit settlement