3 Little Village men get long-awaited payday after former car wash owner cheated them out of wages

Sabino Cervantes, Miguel Angel Fernandez and Cesar Martinez were paid a combined total of $324,846 in back wages and damages.

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Miguel Angel Fernandez holds a check for backpay and penalties from Little Village Car Wash.

Miguel Angel Fernandez shows a check for back wages and penalties he received from former employer Little Village Car Wash.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Tuesday was a payday years in the making for three Little Village men who spent nearly a decade fighting their former employer for lost wages.

Sabino Cervantes, Miguel Angel Fernandez and Cesar Martinez were finally paid a combined total of $324,846 in back wages and damages from Octavio Rodriguez, the owner of the Little Village Carwash, where the men worked as attendants until the business closed in 2015.

The trio were smiling under their masks and had nothing but pure joy in their eyes as they received their individual checks at Arise Chicago’s office in the West Loop.

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“Sometimes we’ve doubted that we were going to win,” Martinez, 37, said through a Spanish interpreter. “It took a long time but finally, we held on and kept fighting.”

Cervantes, 80, teared up when he saw his two checks. He said he couldn’t help but think of his late wife, who died from COVID-19 complications in the past year.

“This is just fair that I now have this money that I was owed,” Cervantes said in Spanish.

This marks the end of a legal battle that spanned nine years.

In 2011, Arise Chicago, a local organization that works to fight workplace injustice, helped Cervantes, Fernandez and Martinez take their complaints of unpaid wages to the U.S. Department of Labor, which ruled in favor of the workers.

Rodriguez made a bulk payment of about $1,600 in back wages and began paying the workers minimum wage. But that lasted for only about six months before Rodriguez began withholding money again, Arise Chicago strategic campaign organizer Jorge Mujica said.

The workers then took their complaints to the Illinois Department of Labor, which also ruled in their favor.

Mujica said Rodriguez didn’t pay the men, and the Illinois attorney general sued Rodriguez in 2014.

Rodriguez filed for bankruptcy in 2016.

In September, the court ruled the men deserved to be paid what they were owed for their work between 2011 and 2015. The Illinois Department of Labor calculated what would be considered back wages, and that amount was doubled as a penalty under federal law for the “egregious cases,” attorney Karen Engelhardt said.

Rodriguez’s lawyer David Lloyd declined to comment.

Mujica said wage theft is a huge problem with the car wash industry. Citing a 2012 study by a University of Illinois at Chicago labor program titled “Clean Cars, Dirty Work,” Mujica said roughly 40% of car wash employees see their wages stolen.

The men stayed at the car wash despite being underpaid because they felt compelled to keep working, Mujica said.

“That’s one of the key elements of labor trafficking. They think [it] is the same thing everywhere. And it is,” Mujica said.

All three men said the fight for this long-awaited payment took a toll on their mental and physical health. Fernandez said he was happy for it to finally be over.

“I hope this is a good example for so many workers who see their wages stolen,” Fernandez said in Spanish.

Cervantes said he wouldn’t have been able to do the fight alone. 

“You have to seek for help, you have to seek for support, and alone, individually, [it] might be impossible to win something like this. But as a team, with everyone at Arise, it was possible,” Cervantes said.

Mujica called Tuesday a win for Cervantes, Fernandez and Martinez, but said they shouldn’t have had to wait this long to be fairly compensated.

“Nine years to collect the wages you earned this week and last week and last month is not justice. That is just too long,” Mujica said. “We won this case, but there are thousands of workers every day whose wages are stolen, and they don’t need to wait for nine years to collect that pattern to change. That has to change.”

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