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Auto dealership mogul Hooman Nissani’s car wash faces big wage-theft case

Adolfo Ledo Nass
Auto dealership mogul Hooman Nissani’s car wash faces big wage-theft case

In the largest wage-theft case ever brought by the state of California against a car wash company, Beverly Hills auto dealership mogul Hooman Nissani is being ordered to pay $2.4 million in back pay and penalties. The state says his car wash cheated 64 workers out of minimum wages and overtime over three years.

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According to the California Labor Commissioner, workers at Nissani’s Playa Vista Car Wash in Culver City were paid less than the legal minimum wage in some cases. They were denied overtime pay, despite working up to 10 hours a day and as many as seven days a week. Time cards were falsified, the case alleges.

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Advertisement Nissani and the car wash’s general manager, Keyvan Shamshoni, required Playa Vista Car Wash workers to report to an alley near the car wash 30 minutes before the business opened, according to the state labor commissioner’s citation. It said those not selected to work were sent home without being paid for the waiting time.

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Hooman Nissani at his Playa Vista auto mall. (Ringo Chiu / ZUMA Press) Nissani and Shamshoni are jointly liable, along with the car wash company, to pay more than $1.8 million in back wages and $516,000 in civil penalties, according to the labor commission. Investigators also ordered them to pay back $19,000 which was deducted from workers’ paychecks for towels used at the car wash.

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“Individuals acting on behalf of an employer to steal workers’ wages cannot hide behind corporate entities to avoid personal liability, all the while profiting at the expense of honest businesses that play by the rules,” California Labor Secretary Julie Su said in a statement released Wednesday

Nissani and Shamshoni did not respond to messages left at the car wash and on personal phones. Ryan Nissani, Hooman’s brother and business partner, said in a brief phone interview: “My brother is the most honest man I know.”

During the time he is accused of cheating workers out of wages, Hooman Nissani has described his businesses as flourishing

In 2016, a Nissani company, Hooman Automotive Group, bought an 8.5-acre site in Playa Vista near Google’s offices to build a massive auto mall for Chrysler, Hyundai, Nissan and Acura dealerships he owns. The cost per acre was nearly $10 million, according to the Real Deal , a real estate news site

On a personal website chronicling his career, Nissani wrote, “In 2016 our businesses generated sales of more than one billion dollars.” He cited the Playa Vista Car Wash, noting, “It currently is performing far beyond what it had under the previous ownership, but beyond my expectations as well.”

Car washes are among the most flagrant violators of wage laws, according to the labor commissioner’s office, along with construction firms, farms, restaurants, residential care homes and janitorial businesses — all sectors with heavily immigrant workforces

“There is often a language barrier,” said Daniel Yu, assistant chief of the commissioner’s enforcement bureau. “The workers fear losing their jobs if they file complaints. Bosses commonly threaten immigration retaliation if they don’t have [legal] status. But California laws protect all workers regardless of immigration status.”

Playa Vista Car Wash in Culver City. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times) The Playa Vista case comes in the wake of two large car wash cases in Orange County last month

The Car Spa in Newport Beach and owner Colin Berger were assessed $1.1 million, accused of cheating 23 workers over three years out of minimum wages, overtime, meal and rest breaks

“We have definitely appealed the citation and are waiting for a hearing,” Berger said in an email. “We deny that we cheated anyone,” he added

The Commonwealth Car Wash in Fullerton and owner Rola Alquza were assessed $1.5 million, accused of denying their workers minimum wages, overtime and meal breaks. Alquza did not respond to messages left at his car wash, but the labor commissioner said Alquza has appealed

Car wash owners also have been pursued by federal authorities. Last year, Vahid David Delrahim , owner of some 100 car washes and gas stations across Southern California, paid $4.2 million in a wage theft case involving 800 car wash workers after a two-year court battle with the U.S. Department of Labor

Advertisement The Playa Vista case was brought to the labor commissioner’s attention by the Community Labor Environmental Action Network, or CLEAN, a small Los Angeles nonprofit that assists car wash workers. CLEAN introduced the Spanish-speaking workers to investigators and helped them air their grievances

“Workers are often afraid to talk to government agencies,” Yu said. “Community groups can reach out and build trust.”

Cases like the Playa Vista Car Wash case are “not uncommon,” said Andrea Gonzalez, CLEAN’s lead organizer. “Employers cheat workers out of their pay in many ways, whether it by paying them low daily rates, paying them by piece rates. In some cases, they are only paid through customer tips. We are holding them accountable.”