April 23, 2009
Car Wash Brothers Face Labor Abuse Charges
Since two local Iranian Jewish brothers were charged with a 176-count criminal complaint by the L.A. City Attorney’s Office in February for alleged labor law violations at their car washes, many area Iranian Jewish business owners are quietly expressing support for the pair. And some believe they are being singled out for political reasons.
The complaint alleges that Benny Pirian, 38, and Nissan Pirian, 31, the owners of four car washes in Northridge, Hollywood and Los Feliz, routinely refused to pay their workers minimum wage, failed to pay their workers overtime, prevented their workers from taking rest breaks and required their workers to purchase uniforms and equipment from them, in addition to other violations of state labor laws. The complaint also alleges that workers who attempted to unionize the car washes with the help of the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers were intimidated and harassed, and that a manager at one of the car washes brandished a machete and a club in two such union-busting incidents.
The City Attorney’s Office also alleges that the Pirians failed to provide medical attention to workers who were seriously injured by acid burns, deep puncture wounds and severe lacerations while on the job. If convicted on all counts, the Pirians could face more than 80 years in county jail and more than $1.25 million in fines and restitution.
“This was a joint investigation involving the investigators from our office and from the United States Department of Labor,” said Max Follmer, a City Attorney’s Office spokesperson. “Our offices investigated this case for some time, interviewing more than 40 witnesses.”
The Pirians’ arraignment is scheduled for May 7 in L.A. Superior Court.
The criminal charges are just the latest troubles for the Pirians. Bet Tzedek, the L.A.-based Jewish nonprofit law firm, first filed a civil class-action suit against the brothers and their four car washes last May on behalf of nearly 250 current and former workers for unpaid wages as well as denial of rest and meal breaks.
The Pirians declined to speak on the record with The Journal about the criminal charges and other litigation, directing inquiries instead to their attorney, Mark Werksman.
Werksman denied his clients’ wrongdoing and said the criminal and civil cases brought against his clients were retaliation stemming from the Pirians’ lack of support for unionizing activities at their car washes.
“The criminal charges are baseless and rely on frivolous, unproveable allegations made by union organizers who are trying to punish the Pirians and their employees for resisting their union drive,” he said. “The union has launched a campaign of harassment and frivolous litigation to bludgeon the Pirians into submission, and this prosecution is their latest weapon.”
While many local Iranian Jewish community leaders declined to comment on the Pirians’ case, business owners in the community have been quietly supporting the brothers over the past few months.
“This criminal case is politically motivated since the outgoing City Attorney [Rocky] Delgadillo wants to curry favor with the unions before he leaves office in June,” said Houshang F., an Iranian Jewish car wash owner in the San Fernando Valley who asked that his last name be withheld. “These brothers are just being made an example of by Delgadillo to scare the rest of us car wash owners into bowing down to the unions.”
Follmer said that the criminal charges brought against the Pirians were not politically motivated. “The charges were brought by experienced career prosecutors and based upon evidence developed over the course of lengthy and complete prosecutions,” he said.
Bijan Yaghoobia, an Iranian Jewish former car wash owner, said many in the Iranian Jewish community are standing in support of the Pirians despite the numerous allegations of wrongdoings.
“There was shock in the community over the charges but a lot more compassion for these guys because they were the ones singled out over others. The belief is that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Yaghoobia said.
Several Iranian car wash owners said their business has long had problems with monitoring laborers since many of their workers are undocumented; they often come on their off days to work for tips alone and sometimes they leave the country for long periods of time.
“I think the car washes are an easy target in the city for these labor violations, even though there are plenty of garment businesses, light manufacturing companies and even restaurants using illegal labor,” Houshang F. said.
According to California State Labor Codes, a person’s immigration status is irrelevant when it comes to their employers’ duty to pay employees minimum wages, allow for rest and meal breaks and follow all other labor laws.
Yaghoobia, who owned several car washes for 13 years, said car washes have long been popular among Iranian Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles since it is a profitable, low-skill cash business. He added that many car washes use illegal labor to reduce costs and prices, which in turn puts financial pressure on owners who follow labor laws and hire documented workers.
“The problem arises when you’re in an area where there are other car washes who are hiring illegals, or not paying minimum wages or hiring tip workers. You have to compete with them since they have lower prices,” Yaghoobia said.
Bet Tzedek’s current civil case against the Pirians is also not the first, said Kevin Kish, Bet Tzedek’s director of legal services. In 2005, Bet Tzedek represented a Pirian car wash employee in a lawsuit for failure to pay minimum wages and overtime in a case that was eventually settled, he said.
Kish said the latest health and safety citations received by the Pirians’ car washes were in December 2008 from the California Department of Industrial Relations, Occupational Safety and Health division.
According to records from the L.A. City Attorney’s Office, while criminal charges were not previously brought against the Pirians, a different car wash owner was previously convicted of labor law violations in November 2005. In that case, the owner was ordered to pay more than $160,000 in restitution to 11 workers and to complete community service requirements with Caltrans.
Yaghoobia said that while individuals may be quick to blame car wash owners like the Pirians for labor violations, the fault in such cases often lie with both workers and their employers.
“Both sides are at fault because, for example, you tell your worker to take a lunch break but he works through it to make tips and everything is hunky dory until one day the laborer gets upset with the owner for some reason so he goes to the Labor Board and claims he’s been mistreated,” he said. “At the same time many of the owners are uneducated about the state labor laws and the accountants they hire don’t always educate them about these laws.”
For more about this story and local Iranian Jews, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.