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What California can teach us

October 11, 2010
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California is a state that likes to be first. The first state to ban trans fats in restaurants, the first state to require new homes and buildings to be energy efficient, and the first state to consider limiting volatile organic compounds in home carwash products. And yes, also the first state to tell carwash and detail businesses they need to register with the state, post a bond and keep complete records on the hours and pay of all employees.

The Golden State has been first to introduce — or to inflame — a lot of important issues in the carwash industry. Whether operators are handling drought or going green, dealing with the state’s registration process or getting chewed up in the press during union pushes, the spotlight remains on the West Coast.

Professional Carwashing & Detailing caught up with a man who has been steadily dealing with these “firsts” for the last year. Jerry Nix, current president of the Western Carwash Association (WCA) and owner of Speedi Carwash Inc., in Tacoma, WA, has been at the forefront of a movement that is not only handling the issues in California, but is also preparing the rest of the West Coast for similar situations. Nix discussed the various states of all these firsts and also told PC&D what lessons might be gleaned from these events.

So here they are, for the benefit of carwashes in all 50 states and around the world: Four important lessons that can help you boost profits, increase performance and beat the politicians at their own game.

The Golden State dries up
The official announcement came June 5, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought following two years of low rainfall and snowmelt. Of course, for carwash operators, unofficial preparations had begun years ago when many started installing water reclaim systems and investing in desert-scape plants with minimum water requirements as a landscaping alterative.

“Last November the WCA saw this problem on the horizon so we re-organized the Environmental Committee,” Nix explained. The committee, headed by past WCA President Randy Cressall, is currently developing a comprehensive environmental program for operators, legislators and consumers.

The environmental program will seek to build upon plans in other states, like North Carolina and Georgia, and is expected to call for voluntary water reductions and educational efforts. Nix suggested the program will put West Coast carwashes on the cutting edge of environmental issues.

Like North Carolina and Georgia, California cities have already discussed bans on home carwashing, but unlike those states, the calls for action seem to be more passionate and persistent.

For example, in April, water managers in East Bay, CA, considered an outright ban on home carwashing, while the Board of Supervisors in San Luis Obispo County, CA, approved an ordinance that would make home carwashing practically illegal in all instances. In June, National City, CA, councilman Louie Natividad asked that the city step up its enforcement of municipal codes which he believes prohibit home carwashing and some charity carwashing. The next month, the Newhall County Water District revisited its ordinance regarding driveway carwashing with the thought that the county might ban home carwashing.

The lesson: Take action
So what can operators in other states learn from California’s handling of the drought? “It is my hope that operators will start educating their local water purveyors and municipalities as to the benefits of professional carwashing,” Nix said. “The carwash industry is a solution to the problem of water conservation and water quality.”

By educating their local governments and utilities, carwash operators will be able to encourage similar movements to encourage consumers to use professional carwashes instead of washing at home.

California operators have also had great success in motivating cities and towns to adapt charity carwash programs which prompt organizations to seek out partnership with a professional carwash instead of attempting to go it alone in a parking lot. The WCA has made its program available on its website, www.wcwa.org, and it can easily be adapted and imitated in other states. In fact, many regional carwash associations have conducted similar efforts and operators are encouraged to contact their local association for more information about following or starting up a program.

Red? Blue? California is all green
California is about as green as they come. In fact, carwashes here are probably washing more hybrid vehicles than businesses in any other state simply because the state has more of these vehicles on the road than almost all other states combined.

How else is the state green? Well, in 2007, California legislators succeeded in passing an agreement to cut greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2020. The pioneering legislation put all eyes on California as lawmakers sought to map out a realistic plan for meeting their goals. Part of this plan includes restricting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are often found in products made for home carwashing. Tire cleaners, windshield water repellents and odor removers would also have to comply with the regulations included in the proposal, which could take effect in 2010.

These regulations could make it more difficult for consumers to wash their vehicles at home, but in their wake are a bevy of new, environmentally-friendly home cleaning products ready to capitalize on the opportunity. “Waterless” carwash products have enjoyed some notable press coverage in California this year, from celebrity and luxury car endorsements to being touted by green organizations.

Meanwhile, California operators have started to make real efforts to green up their businesses. Owners like Aaron Zeff of Harv’s Car Washes in and around Sacramento, CA, (www.harvscarwash.com) are making headlines by educating consumers and legislators to the benefits of professional carwashing and dedicating themselves to environmentally-friendly business practices. Zeff is also one of a handful of operators, like Procter & Gamble, who is considering offering an alternative service to his conveyor locations that would incorporate some waterless carwash product.

The lesson: Green up your business and educate
“I think many carwashes can go green by first making an effort to perform an assessment audit of there water usage and waste,” offered Nix. “The utilization of a charity carwash program, high pressure nozzles, water reclamation systems, energy efficient lighting, recycle collection cans for customers to deposit bottles, cans or papers, and oil water separators equipped with coalescing plates is a major step to becoming socially responsible for our environment.”

Nix suggested that operators who create a partnership with their local government to bring environmental awareness to customers and community will benefit from increased exposure, not to mention dollars saved by investing in energy efficient equipment. “I recently talked to an operator who is receiving a $50 credit per horsepower motor rating on his electric bill by installing variable frequency drives (VFD),” Nix said.

Registering with the state
The year 2003 was not a good year for carwash operators in California. This is the year that a hidden-camera investigation (which showed employees being paid less than minimum wage and under the table) was conducted by a Los Angeles NBC affiliate and later re-broadcast by the hit national news show Dateline NBC during prime time. It is also the year that California State Labor Commissioner Art Lujan — in response to the TV investigation — ordered a statewide crackdown on carwashes.

Lujan’s crackdown later led to the passing of state bill AB 1688 which required carwashes to register each year with the California Labor Department and to also document their payroll. The Car Wash Industry compliance program in California was extended when SB 1468 was passed, which effectively moved the law’s repeal date to January 1, 2010.

The WCA has been very proactive in the process of getting operators registered the state. To date, there are about 1,600 carwashes registered, Nix said.

“We have constantly written on the subject in our e-magazine, “The Express,” and magazine publication “The Report” educating operators about the new law and the process of registering,” Nix explains. “We also have had the California Labor Commissioner, Angela Bradstreet, speak at our annual trade show and conference [held last year in Las Vegas].”

This past June, the WCA and the California Labor Commissioner’s Office sponsored a workshop in Los Angeles about California’s Car Wash Registration Law, compliance inspections by the Bureau of Field Enforcement (BOFE), and the Economic Employment Enforcement Coalition (EEEC). In fact, the WCA has a very beneficial affiliation with the Labor Commissioners office, despite its objection to the registration act.

The lesson: Comply with the law, join an association
Nix said he doesn’t believe that other states will adopt similar registration programs, but the California law does reinforce the importance of regional associations. “Belonging to an association like the WCA is so vital. These associations can keep you informed about legislative activity that is forming on the horizon.”

Nix said he also encourages all carwash operators, regardless of what state they are operating in, to check with their local and state labor departments to ensure they are complying with all state and federal regulations. It’s the easiest, simplest way to avoid a big mess later on.

A push for unionization
It’s not something we like to think about: Shady carwash operators treating employees unfairly and sullying the reputation of our entire industry in the process. But it happens. And in California, where cheap labor abounds and many workers are non-English speakers, it has become a headline issue and a public relations nightmare.

“It has been disturbing to me that these ‘rogue operators’ are taking advantage of their labor force by not treating them fairly and/or by not paying there workforce properly according to California Labor Law Standards,” Nix lamented. “These ‘rogue operators’ have an unfair business advantage in the marketplace over the legal operators who are paying there workers legally and operating within the letter of the law.”

And these rogue operators have lately led to a push for carwash workers to unionize in California.

The union movement happened like this: This March, The Los Angeles Times said it had conducted an investigation which revealed that hand carwashes throughout Southern California had been violating labor and immigration laws. The report, published March 23, was followed by an announcement from union officials stating they intended to start a campaign to organize carwash workers from L.A. businesses only two days later.

“Carwash owners are often operating below the radar of labor, health and safety and environmental laws,” Labor Federation spokeswoman Mary Guitierrez said in the press announcement. “Carwash workers are often illegally paid less than the minimum wage, sometimes working for tips alone … and are regularly subjected to health and safety hazards.”

A follow-up story in The Los Angeles Times followed one organizer as he courted workers at Nary’s Hand Car Wash until they finally picketed, causing the carwash owner to sell his carwash, and eventually, one worker was sent back to his country
of origin.

Two days after the follow-up story, March 29, hundreds of people rallied at three Hollywood, CA, carwashes to protest unfair working conditions. All three carwashes were owned by the Pirian family, a family that owns eight carwashes in Los Angeles County and has been cited for violations against occupational safety, health, and environmental laws by state investigators. (Professional Carwashing & Detailing was unable to contact family representatives for this story, although owner Benny Pirian has told other news outlets that the charges against him and his family are false and the result of one disgruntled employee.)

By July, Pirian family employees had charged their employer with illegal coercion and harassment, including threats of physical violence, for trying to organize a union and for speaking to press. The Carwash Worker Organizing Committee, organized as part of the United Steelworkers of America union, filed two new unfair labor practice charges against Vermont Hand Wash with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In all, there were six charges filed against Benny Pirian and his family, although most of the news reports focused on an entire industry that was “often” mistreating its workers.

The lesson: Be open, be honest, be on the right side of the law
Nix and the WCA both recommend that operators inform their customers with signage or by verbally communicating to them that they do operate their business properly, and in the state of California that means registering with the state and strictly complying with all state and federal laws. According to Nix, the WCA is now considering supplying its California membership with a window decal or other signage indicating the carwash is registered. The decal would have space on it for the business owner to write his/her registration number for public display.

Nix doesn’t think unionization is the resolution to the problem, and even Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675, has said carwash workers face an uphill battle to organize their union. “There are already significant labor laws in place to protect the workers against illegal labor practices,” Nix said.

Nix said California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, has created a toll free carwash registration enforcement message hotline at 1-877-227-5158. Nix said operators can use this hotline to report circumstances of carwash and polishing businesses — including mobile carwash services — which they believe to be operating without complying with the state’s registration requirements. The hotline is monitored by the DLSE on a regular basis and the appropriate enforcement agency will take the proper action supplied by tipsters, Nix said.

Your homework
These lessons may have been learned first or at least most publicly by California operators, but it doesn’t mean the issues aren’t affecting your carwash. Prepare your wash today by:
  • Working with your local municipality to prepare a drought plan which recognizes the importance of professional carwash operations during water shortages;

  • Adapting environmentally-friendly business practices which help save your carwash money and give customers one more reason to feel good about getting their car washed at your business;

  • Complying with all local, state and federal labor laws and joining a regional association which can help you better understand your rights and regulations;

  • Encouraging all wash operators in your market area and state to comply with labor regulations and to show your customers your dedication to following the law.


Kate Carr is the editor in chief of Professional Carwashing & Detailing® Magazine. Carr can be reached atkcarr@carwash.com.

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