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A labor force fenced out

October 11, 2010
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Unless, like Van Winkle, they've been asleep at the tunnel controls for an extended period, every carwash owner or operator in the land knows changes are in the wind for the nation's immigration laws.

The Bush administration has been pushing for and Congress has passed bills that, if enacted, would have a profound effect on the labor pool for carwash operations. (See sidebar on page 50 to review provisions of bills that had yet to be reconciled; fierce opposition between the two houses indicates that a compromise law is not likely to emerge anytime soon, but it remains on the horizon.)

What would any changes resembling the proposals mean to owners and operators of full-serve washes, detail shops and others who run labor-intensive car care businesses? Most of these business owners already complain that retaining good, low-cost labor is their worst headache.

Some of their potential workers, who once could just walk in off the street and get a job in their wash, may be fenced out. That leaves the willing worker only dreaming of greener pastures, and leaves business owners looking at paying higher wages or trying to make do with fewer workers.

As companions to this article, on pages 52 and 58, PC&D also presents views on immigrant workers from two brothers in one of the industry's most prominent carwash families. John Jurkens founded the Octopus Car Wash chain in the upper Midwest and then moved in 1969 to Albuquerque, NM, from where his son Joel now operates eight washes. Jeff, John's oldest son, now operates five carwashes from his home of operations in Wisconsin.

Shrinking labor pool?
Just how much of a car care business' labor pool would be affected is debated. A lot depends on how much of existing immigrant labor is categorized as legal or authorized, and how many immigrants the federal government chooses to sanction as workers, giving permanent residence status or even citizenship.

Currently, the pool of immigrants is still expanding, not shrinking. Nationally, the federal Office of Immigration Statistics gave legal permanent resident status to close to 1 million people in 2004, an influx the government has held relatively constant since the mid 1980s, but much higher than the 1950s through the 1970s.

The number of unauthorized or undocumented immigrants that also enter the country each year is estimated to be about 350,000. Those increases have brought the total undocumented immigrant population to somewhere between 7 million and 12 million, depending on the estimating organization. Included are people who crossed the border illegally and those who overstayed legal visas.

Legal or illegal, many car care businesses count heavily on this immigrant pool that comes seeking jobs with basic skills or no skills and often only their own language.

Mark Thorsby, executive director of the International Carwash Association, has called for the industry to address the mounting concern. "It has an effect and it's time the issue be addressed," he said.

Carwashing hiring: today vs. tomorrow
Existing law requires employers to see some sort of proof of residency, such as a driver's license or Social Security card, fill out a form and put the employee to work.

Fake working papers are easy to obtain and whether the employer knows those documents are false or not, chances of either employee or employer getting caught, must less prosecuted, are slight.

One operator told PC&D, "We used to photocopy the documents to show (the federal government) we had done all we could to check legal status. Their reply was "Do not do this unless you photocopy every single applicant or it would be viewed as prejudicial."

That point was driven home in a ruling this spring in Illinois where a federal judge said asking the immigrant status of just a few workers is discriminatory.

In the Congressional debate, both sides agree business owners must be held to a higher standard for checking a prospective employee's status. For carwash employers, looking at some paperwork won't be enough. The immigrant status of workers will need to be verified with documents to back it up.

That verification can be expensive, either in time or additional help. A carwash owner could make the rounds of state and federal offices himself or have a staffer double-check whether the documents are real. In a car care business where turnover is high, costs of checking every employee would mount quickly.

The proposed bills would provide money to beef up verification programs, so carwash operators won't feel as much of a financial pinch. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also already offers a computer service to help business owners verify a prospective employee's status. The Internet-based program links employers to the Social Security and Homeland Security databases of nearly a half-billion records for quick, cross-reference checks.

The program was pilot tested in several states, then expanded to cover the entire country in late 2004. It allows employees to type in a name, Social Security number and data from I-9 Employment Verification forms. The system usually generates a response within seconds.

"The employer will not have to rely on their own ability to spot fraudulent documents," said Shawn Saucier, a USCIS spokesman.

Saucier said the verification rate is about 85 percent. In the 15 percent where there is a problem, the burden of proof falls on the prospective hire, not the employer.

"They (employees) have eight days to get verification and in most of those cases, the employee never tries to find out why," explained Saucier. "They probably already know why."

Further information about the program is available by contacting USCIS at 202-272-8720 or online at

Prepare for change
The biggest impact will come if Congress makes it a felony to be undocumented, thereby forcing all illegals to leave the country or face a prison sentence. The vacuum created by any mass exodus could suck profits out of many carwashes.

Earlier this year, Professional Carwashing & Detailing® asked a simple survey question on immigrant labor and the industry. Of those responding, about 70 percent believed the industry could survive without immigrant labor.

But that was the entire industry. On car care bulletin boards, the viewpoints varied significantly, and some indicated that full service operations could be dramatically affected, especially those that have relied upon undocumented workers for the sake of the bottom line.

Most employers have a good feel for their own workforce and, if wholesale changes in immigration policy do move forward, they need to be ready with answers about what changes will help them keep operating at similar profitability.

Can you lose a portion of your workforce? Even legal immigrants may leave if there is a massive policy swing that forces relatives out.

If your wages rise and your prices follow suit, will your customers remain loyal? Or, will operational changes — chemicals, equipment maintenance schedules — be needed to keep your prices down?

Be ready to look for "give" in your business plan, or be ready to consider changing full serve sites to express exterior, flex serve, or other models that require lower overall labor.

The fox and the hedgehog
A lesson in immigration and handling the press.

By Jeff Jurkens

We at Octopus Car Washes in the Midwest have been blessed with an immigrant, mostly Latino, labor force for the better part of the last decade or so. Documentation of these very workers has become a subject of much heated debate.

In response to this divisive issue, the House recently created a bill that included, among other restrictions, tougher guidelines for documentation. The bill also included a provision for changing the existing ramifications of a first offense, by elevating the misdemeanor to a federal felony. This little understood draconian ramification means a minimum mandatory punishment of five years in federal prison.

Needless to say, this caused much discord in the Latino community. In response to this, in Madison, WI, where we have three locations, the community organized a "Latino Recognition" rally to be held on a Monday afternoon in April.

The chase begins …
Let me make it clear that we are known in the Latino community as a preferred egalitarian employer. Our entry level wage is well above federal minimums, and it encourages promotion from within, as well as profit sharing potential to all.

It is not at all unusual to find a Latino employee with five years or better tenure in our firm. Therefore, keeping with the culture of Octopus, we took this situation seriously and wished to make it possible for our interested employees to attend this rally.

As a result, we:

  • Wrote and disseminated a written bilingual policy;
  • Encouraged all that wished to attend to do so;
  • Made it abundantly clear we were very sympathetic to their plight and cause;
  • Required only that those wishing to attend must cover their positions while attending. If a worker had any problems doing so, we advised him to ask for assistance; and
  • Advised the staff that anyone scheduled to work that day that did not, without prior arrangement, would be considered "no call, no show." 
Our 50-year standing policy to the above transgression is termination. Many line workers, even management with that day off, offered to fill in for employees who wanted to attend the rally.

Regrettably, due mostly to miscommunication, a few workers at one location did not show up for work that day. Prior to my discovering the miscommunication snafu, management at that location fired one worker the next morning for "no call — no show." 

Ironically, this very employee had spoken to me that prior Saturday, confirming that he knew the consequences of simply not showing up for work.

The moment I was made aware of the miscommunication, I immediately instituted a freeze on any further retribution until I could get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately, an untimely set of events soon cascaded to disaster.

That evening, just as many of us had assembled for our monthly meeting, the local TV showed up, interrupting our meeting, and informed me they had just met with three employees I had "fired" for simply attending the Latino Rally.

Did I wish to comment?

The chase gets tricky …
Having dealt many times with media and been misquoted and/or taken out of context, I chose to "out fox" them by giving them a battery of the copious things we had done in the past, were doing presently, were surely planning for our future as well as how, in detail, this entire affair was a complete misunderstanding. In short, I gave them enough to bury me.

That evening we were the lead story: "Local businessman, Jeff Jurkens of Octopus Car Washes, fired three of his employees for attending the Latino Rally; the only company in the Madison area to do so. Community leaders comment that a boycott of the business will be considered if this cannot be resolved in a timely manner."

Within three hours of those first reports, we realized there had been a misunderstanding and that the employees had been bushwhacked by the reporters, too. These workers just happened to be at the Latino organization's center when the news team showed up on a related issue and found a "really good" story.

The damage of the news story was incredible - they reported in the news clip that our employees needed to maintain their anonymity to protect their livelihoods  and refused to be on camera, shot from the waist down, real "60 Minutes" drama.

However, the employees that spoke with this news outlet completely understood they had been misquoted and taken out of context — they were scared to death of the reporters (read: federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement), not of the carwash, as was reported by the talking heads.

After three hours, all misunderstandings were understood — no one was fired.

I went into damage control mode instantly. Within the next week we:

  • Met with the local Latino Community Action organization and our "fired" employees to "arbitrate" this misunderstanding;
  • Fielded constant, continuous calls all week, all locations — subject: "We have been using you for years and although we love you, if you're going to fire Mexicans for attending a rally, well, we just can't come anymore!"
  • Relentlessly pitted one media source against another to get truth out. All counted, there were three radio stations, two TV stations, and three newspaper articles — all wrong.

The chase concludes …
I "blackmailed" the original transgressor TV station to run, ostensibly a retraction, so watered down no one got the point, anyhow. I'm still confronted in public as to why I would fire the Mexicans?

And the "offending" location? Business is down 12 percent from last year same time period — and that is 8 percent more than other locations (weather has been bit worse than last year).

This experience reminds me of the story of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in, day out, the fox being fast, cunning and crafty circles the hedgehog's den waiting for the perfect moment to pounce, surely the winner.

The hedgehog is a dowdier creature, like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and an armadillo; he simply searches around for lunch and takes care of his house.

The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture of the trail awaiting his meal. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders into the path of the fox. As the fox leaps out at lightning speed, the hedgehog looks up and thinks, "Here we go again. Will he ever learn?"

Rolling up in a small sphere of sharp spikes, the hedgehog wins the day. The fox averts his prey to trot off to contemplate another day, another attack.

My mistake was in trying to be a fox, when I am a hedgehog. How could I outfox the reporter foxes, circling round me, skillfully asking questions and recording answers designed for hedgehog editors to misquote and use clips out of context to increase dramatic effect? After all, only bad news and controversy sells.

The final lesson: I should have remained a hedgehog and stuck to the simple truth born out each day by our record of care for our own, "No one was fired for attending any rally, ever — PERIOD!"

After all, no one can take that out of context, or misquote it.

Jeff Jurkens is the CEO of Octopus Car Wash's Midwest operations. He currently operates three carwashes and can be reached at

Working hard for their money
Why the carwash industry needs to secure good labor, and how it should prepare for a shortage.

By Joel Jurkens

Over the past 15 years, the U.S. has experienced phenomenal economic growth and businesses have been able to expand at a fantastic rate. Many of these businesses rely on undocumented aliens to make their businesses function.

When President Bush was elected, he suggested the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as (ICE) Immigration and Customs Enforcement) back off so employers would be able to expand their businesses.

Unfortunately, some employers have taken advantage of this situation by paying less than the minimum wage and forgoing overtime pay. As a result, the undocumented worker is refused the benefits of the economic expansion he or she has contributed to.

We have all heard the stories of the ICE busting a carwash and claims of unjust treatment of hourly pay and tips by employers.

Undocumented problems
If we are going to continue hiring undocumented workers we must treat them with respect and proper pay. In most cases, carwash owners have no choice but to hire undocumented employees.

Often employee paperwork sent to the Social Security Administration is returned as fictitious and criminal.

As a result, employers work under a cloak of darkness always worrying whether the applicant has the proper paperwork. In the past, employers have not worried too much about reprisals from the U.S. government for hiring undocumented aliens.

If the regulations become too tight, some say, this could seriously hurt the economy with fewer employees. The government needs to come up with a system which allows the foreigners entry into the U.S. while distributing the prosperity we all cherish.

Since the economy has been so good for so long, there are more than enough jobs for those who wish to work. The undocumented should become documented if they can show that they are actively employed.

Hard workers
In my experience, if you give these folks the opportunity to enhance their quality of life through fair pay and the ability to excel they become an asset to our country.

They should be able to apply for employer health care benefits and receive a legal Social Security number. There are always bad apples in any group which need to be screened out but overall these people just want an opportunity just like our ancestors had.

I would ask our government to allow hard working people to fill the ranks of businesses to ensure our economy remains on the current robust pace.

Preparing for the future
If and when employers lose undocumented employees through ICE regulations we must learn how to staff our businesses effectively in their absence. The production in either a full service or exterior carwash must become more efficient.

Therefore, cars per man hour must increase with the possibility of higher wages. We must institute production methods that allow us to keep our car counts and profits without jeopardizing quality to the customer.

This can be attained with understanding the relationship of conveyor speed to productive accessible employees. There have been numerous articles which have examined the relationship of conveyor speed to number of available employees.

We must pursue these production methods to survive during tough times.

In the meantime, treat your employees with respect and proper pay. Motivate with incentives, time off and bonuses. Don't think about what you should have done after they are gone.

Joel Jurkens is co-owner of the Octopus Car Wash chain, based in Albuquerque, NM. He currently operates 8 carwashes. He can be reached at

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