New York City car washes have been afforded a temporary reprieve from the requirements of the Car Wash Accountability Act signed into law by mayor Bill de Blasio this past June. The law seeks to regulate the city’s car wash industry and was expected to take effect last December. Following legal action by the Association of Car Wash Owners (ACWO), an organization representing roughly 90 percent of the city’s car washes, the city agreed to delay implementation of the law.

Central to the association’s suit is the contention that the law violates past decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court by favoring unionization. The law requires non-unionized car washes to post a surety bond of $150,000 before obtaining a license, while the requirement for unionized car washes is only $30,000. The ACWO objected to this uneven playing field and was to seek an injunction that would have relieved car wash owners of the obligation to post bond until the matter had been adjudicated. The delay in implementation of the law renders the injunction unnecessary for now.

The bond requirement is similar to the one California operators have had to comply with for several years now. Its purpose is to protect workers from exploitation, providing guaranteed payouts to employees if the bond-posting car wash is found guilty of underpaying its workers.

While implementation of the law is being delayed, the city will continue working on getting a set of rules and regulations to govern the car wash industry promulgated. This is expected to be accomplished sometime this month. The city and the car washes are in agreement that delaying implementation was the sensible thing to do as the published regulations could create grounds for further challenges by the ACWO. The association will then have the opportunity to decide whether or not to expand on its lawsuit. Should it decide to do so, the city must be given a chance to respond. All of this has to take place before the parties get to face one another in court. How long this to and fro — and therefore the delay — will last is unknown, but Steve Rotlevi, president of the ACWO, figures a hearing on the merits may be as far off as six months.

“We are in litigation and I cannot make any comments on the case itself,” Rotlevi told Auto Laundry News during a recent interview. He did, however, sound a warning: “Small businesses beware. This is a test case. This is the start. This legislative extortion is a much bigger fight than just the one in New York City. It is going to expand to other cities and states. Car wash organizations are making a tactical mistake by keeping their heads in the sand and not proactively organizing and uniting together with all other organizations.” Given this looming potential problem, Rotlevi is surprised at the lack of support for ACWO from state associations and the International Car Wash Association.

Three years ago, a coalition of community and labor organizations introduced the New-York-City-wide campaign to address car wash working conditions and to unionize car wash workers. The ACWO was formed in response to these changing conditions in the industry. Rotlevi believes compromise could have been possible. “We talked for three years,” he says. But legislative action by the city brought the matter to a head.

“The workers are the backbone of the industry,” says Rotlevi, “but what they are doing [with this legislation] is destroying the workers. They are doing the opposite of what they are talking about doing. This bill will not help workers; it will hurt workers. This bill will destroy jobs; it will not create jobs.”

As it is, advances in car wash technology have created a trend toward the limited-labor (or even no-labor) express-exterior format. Furthermore, changes in consumer preferences and increasing economic pressure are pushing operators to adopt less labor-intensive wash formats. Additional labor-related burdens will do nothing to reverse the trend. “What do you do when you have all these regulations coming your way? You close up, or you switch to a business where you have only one or two workers,” Rotlevi concludes.