New York area car wash workers get more than $91,000 each in unpaid wages
A group of immigrant car wash workers embrace workplace justice worker Modesta Toribio at a news conference, where 18 workers received the final part of a $1.6 million federal court settlement for unpaid wages after a five-year case against four car washes in New York City and New Jersey, in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., June 21, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Eighteen immigrant car wash employees in New York and New Jersey received more than $91,000 each as part of a federal court settlement for unpaid wages, making it the biggest per-worker recovery in the car wash industry, lawyers said on Tuesday.

The agreement awarded the final part of a $1.65 million settlement to 18 workers who were earning less than $20,000 a year at four car washes owned by J.V. Car Wash Ltd., said one of the lawyers who brought the suit in 2011.

Steven Arenson of the employment litigation firm Arenson Dittmar & Karban said each worker on average will receive over $91,000, with the highest being close to $200,000 for two people who were employed the longest. With $750,000 already paid last year, the remaining $900,000 was disbursed on Tuesday.

Lawyers for the defendant declined to comment.

"For all immigrants, all workers, who toil under hardship, this case stands as a resounding message that the American law does protect the worker," Arenson told a news conference.

The employees at the New York car washes were paid $50 to $70 for 12-hour shifts without a break, according to the lawsuit, well below the minimum wage, currently $9 per hour in New York. In New Jersey, where the minimum wage is $8.38 per hour, workers were paid $35 a day for a 10-hour shift.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the Car Wash Accountability Act into law in 2015 to protect workers. Car wash owners have sued the city over the act, claiming it gives preferential treatment to unions.

Low-wage workers nationwide have been demanding higher pay, including fast-food workers who staged protests and strikes last year support of a $15 minimum wage. Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders championed a $15 minimum wage in his campaign.

In 2015, the New York attorney general's office sued Domino's Pizza Inc for wage theft by franchisees.

One of the car wash plaintiffs, Michel Rodriguez, said he began working at a J.V. Car Wash location about week after emigrating from the Dominican Republic.

"It was crazy," Rodriguez, 29, told the news conference. "For you to start working 7 in the morning though 7 p.m. for 12 hours straight with no lunch break in a very, very cold winter."

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Dan Grebler)