What happens when well-intentioned regulators raise the minimum wage in a rapidly automating industry? Reason follows up on a 2016 cover story they wrote on the battle, and let’s just say that the workers haven’t been well-served by the change.
In the past six years, the car wash industry, which employs low-skilled, mostly immigrant workers, has also been the target of lawsuits for alleged underpayment of wages, including a handful of cases spearheaded by the New York State Attorney General’s office. Working conditions in the industry were also cited as a raison d’être in the successful campaign to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour, which takes full effect at New York City car washes in January of 2019.
As Reason chronicled in a feature story in our July 2016 issue, the real world impact of the unionization drive, the lawsuits, and the $15 minimum wage has been mainly to push car washes to automate and to close down.
Two years later, there are more unintended consequences. The $15 minimum wage is fostering a growing black market—workers increasingly have no choice but to ply their trade out of illegal vans parked on the street, because the minimum wage has made it illegal for anyone to hire them at the market rate.
The minimum wage is also cartelizing the industry: Businesses that have chosen to automate are benefiting from the $15 wage floor because outlawing cheap labor makes it harder for new competitors to undercut them on price and service.
As a sequel to the 2016 article, this video takes an in-depth look at the real world consequences that result when politicians interfere with a complex industry they don’t understand, enabled by media coverage that rarely questions the overly simplistic tale of exploited workers in need of protection.