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"We used to do the same thing with 25 people, and now I'm doing it with two," says Belinsky.
By making cheap labor illegal, the $15 minimum wage made it possible for Belinsky to downgrade his service. "Before if I go exterior, my competition would say, 'ah, he went exterior and I'm still full-service so I'll take all his customers,'" Belinsky says. "That never gave me a chance to go exterior. Now everybody is forced to go exterior because of this crazy law and the minimum wage $15 per hour. It evened out the field."
The Industry Moves Underground
"These workers have few options and little power, RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum said in his December 2014 speech. "They live in the shadows."
The irony is that progressives have pushed the car wash workers further into the shadows.
The $15 minimum wage amounts to government prohibition of low-wage work. And yet just making something illegal won't stop able-bodied men with few alternatives from meeting a market demand for their services.
Since many legitimate car washes can no longer hire them, workers are going to the streets, where it's all cash, no tax, no unions, no workers comp, no insurance, and certainly no wage floors.
"The economy has led us to this situation to have to work washing cars in the street," says Fausto, an illegal car wash worker who asked that we only use his first name. He's part of a three-man operation washing cars on the curb out of a van for about $15 a pop.
"The customers prefer us," he says, "because when they come with bird droppings, or whatever, we clean it up. The machine can't do that.
Fausto has lived in the U.S. for 19 years, and still sends a portion of his earnings back to the Dominican Republic to help support his wife and children.
"Every week or 15 days, I send $100 for food and other expenses," he says. "I cover their necessities from here."
A Devil's Bargain
Legitimate car washes—left with no choice but to lay off workers who provide hand washes prized by customers, to install expensive machines, and to plaster their walls with operating licenses—are clamoring for the government to enforce the law and shut down the illegal operators.
"How can I compete with these guys when they're paying cash," car wash owner Stuart Markowitz said in 2015 testimony at City Hall, imploring Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who was in attendance, to work with him to shut down the "bad operators."
"'We worry for the workers, look at the laws we made,' says Belinsky, mimicking a politician. "But if those rules are not enforced, those laws are toothless—they only hurt the good guys."
David Mertz concurs, telling Reason that the legitimate owners have a right "to be furious."
"You can also make the argument that you should allow some people to skirt the law, to skirt the regulations that are meant to protect workers in an effort to give people work opportunities," Mertz said. "That's a devil's bargain."
Or maybe the real devil's bargain is championing a set of policies that sound good at a rally, but that in the real world jeopardize the livelihoods of the working poor.