Story by Gary Walker | Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner
Nine months after the California Labor Commissioner’s Office hit L.A. auto dealership mogul Hooman Nissani with the largest wage theft penalty in state history, current and former employees of Nissani’s Playa Vista Car Wash on Centinela Avenue say they are still waiting for compensation.
In April the state ordered Nissani and car wash general manager Keyvan Shamshoni to pay more than $1.8 million in back wages over three years — both for unpaid overtime and paying below minimum wage, according to investigators — plus $19,000 deducted from worker paychecks for supplies and $516,000 in penalties.
“These violations are affecting 64 workers. To this day none of the workers have received any money,” Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) Executive Director Flor Rodrigues told a crowd of about 40 who picketed outside the car wash last Friday. “The employees and ex-employees of Playa Vista Car Wash want other workers to know about their rights and what’s at stake for speaking up today.”
Calls and messages for Nissani were not returned.
Cesar Jacobo, who worked at the car wash for 12 years, said working conditions deteriorated after Nissani took control of the car wash, but there was some improvement after he and other workers complained to management.
“Then all of a sudden last year they retaliated against me and others for speaking out. I was fired last July without any reason, and until this day they still haven’t given me a reason why they fired me,” Jacobo said through an interpreter.
Ulysses Cuellar, who worked at Playa Vista Car Wash for eight months in 2017, said he suffered the same fate for speaking out on what he said were unlawful conditions. He joined the protest because he wants Playa Vista Car Wash’s customers to know who they are patronizing.
“People need to know that there are a lot of things that are going on that the public can’t see,” said Cuellar, adding that workers typically received few if any breaks and never received overtime pay. “When I brought it to the attention of management, the harassment started. Two weeks later I was fired for supposedly mishandling a rubber vacuum hose.”
Before arriving at the car wash, demonstrators began their picket on Mesmer Avenue, across the street from Nissani’s 128,000-square-foot auto mall near the corner of Centinela and Jefferson Boulevard, which Nissani states on his personal website is the “single largest new car service location in the U.S.”
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of the Santa Monica synagogue Beth Shir Shalom called the treatment of car wash workers a “gross obscenity” and said protests like this one are rooted in biblical history.
“People often ask when we have an act like this why do clergy show up. For us, this is a spiritual issue, not just about the technicalities of running a car wash. … It started a long time ago with a company called Egypt and a labor organizer called Moses. We haven’t stopped since, and we’re not stopping until everyone is equal,” Comess-Daniels said.