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Latino car wash employees win record $1.65M in wage theft settlement case

SAN MATEO, CA - JULY 29:  A worker uses a brushe to clean a car at Ducky's Car Wash on July 29, 2015 in San Mateo, California. As California endures its fourth year of severe drought and state water officials have implemented mandatory water reductions, San Mateo County Health System officials are encouraging residents to have their cars washed by a local professional car wash instead of washing your car at home with a garden hose. Most professional car washes use recycled water and average about 20 gallons or less per wash versus up to 150 gallons for a home wash.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SAN MATEO, CA - JULY 29: A worker uses a brushe to clean a car at Ducky's Car Wash on July 29, 2015 in San Mateo, California. As California endures its fourth year of severe drought and state water officials have implemented mandatory water reductions, San Mateo County Health System officials are encouraging residents to have their cars washed by a local professional car wash instead of washing your car at home with a garden hose. Most professional car washes use recycled water and average about 20 gallons or less per wash versus up to 150 gallons for a home wash. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)  (2015 Getty Images)

After years of litigation, a group of immigrant car wash employees won the largest ever wage theft settlement in their line of work.

The 18 Latino car wash employees from New York and New Jersey will divide among themselves a $1.65 million settlement for wage theft and emotional distress. Most washers will receive around $91,000, but those who worked the longest will take home around $200,000.

"Today marks the final step in a five-year battle: the battle for workers’ rights, the battle for immigrants’ rights and the battle against wage theft," attorney Steven Arenson said according to Posta. "Today, happily, this is the final piece in setting a record."

The plaintiffs – who worked for J.V. Car Wash in in New York City; Webster Hand Car Wash Corp. in the Bronx; Harlem Hand Car Wash Corp. in Manhattan and the Bayway Hand Car Wash Corp. in Elizabeth, New Jersey – were all employed by José Vázquez.

When the case went to court, Vázquez filed for bankruptcy and a court-appointed trustee took over the car washes, three of which have been sold. Vazquez is now the "debtor out of possession" of the J.V. Car Wash, which means that while he owns the property and location, he cannot make money off of or manage the car wash until his bankruptcy case closes.

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One of the plaintiffs in the case, 70-year-old Ramón Alvarez, claims that while working at Vázquez’s car wash in Elizabeth he was paid only $20 a day, mostly in tips, and forced to 10-hour shifts. He added that none of the employees was permitted to take a break and had to eat their lunch between servicing cars.

Alvarez said that with his settlement he plans to return to the Dominican Republic and open his own used car business.

"When I looked for help they kicked me out of work," Alvarez told NBC. "And for me, it was very difficult to take care of my family without a job. Today, I say thank you, God, that we won. Thank you to the American legal system. Here we thank the rules."

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