This innovative nonprofit intentionally integrates environmental protection, green products, and water conservation throughout its efforts to increase safety standards for car wash workers in Los Angeles, California.
When The Workers Lab initially connected with CLEAN more than five years ago, the nonprofit was focused on developing an app that would connect car wash workers with training, jobs, information, and other resources aimed to improve their working conditions. CLEAN was a finalist for our 2019 Innovation Fund, in partnership with Capital Impact Partners, and while they didn’t win, The Workers Lab found ways to support its work, including through introductions to other funders, and help feeding the seeds of this growing organization.
As part of its efforts to be sustainable, the nonprofit has intentionally focused on including green products and water conservation efforts into its training program and long-term plans. And in honor of Earth Day, we recently caught up with Flor Rodriguez, the organization’s executive director, to learn what else they’ve been up to in the last few years.
How has your organization changed or grown since we first connected with you?
We were devastated when we didn’t win the Innovation Fund challenge, but losing forced us to re-evaluate what we were offering and ask what our community really needed. We were able to better connect with our community and learn that they didn’t need an app, they needed and wanted more education and training on starting and owning their own businesses. These conversations helped us develop a new approach that would empower workers throughout the process.
Starting in 2017, we were able to focus on a group of workers who wanted to create an LLC that was owned as a coop. We partnered with Democracy at Work and the LA Coop Lap to launch the CleanWash Mobile LLC, a carwash cooperative. We had three workers come together to start this business during the pandemic when car washes were shut down. This group learned all aspects of running a business, including understanding and managing the financials, drafting bylaws, and adopting an employee handbook. They also learned and adopted sustainable practices by using green products and reusable water sources, which is part of their ongoing work.
This group was awarded seed funding that helped them buy a fully equipped mobile van to use as a mobile detailing service and car wash. The team has one full-time employee and multiple part-time employees who manage multiple contracts for like-minded businesses that own fleets of vehicles, including St. John’s Medical Clinic, the LA County Federation of Labor, and two local unions. They also host periodic pop-ups where people can drop in to have their cars cleaned. As the business has grown, it has added two additional owners, and it hopes to add another full-time employee and three more fleet contracts this year.
We also established a one-of-a-kind peer training auto detail program: it’s a curriculum from workers by workers for workers. Each cohort meets for two hours twice a week; the first hour focuses on educating workers on best practices and the second is hands-on training. The focus is also on one-to-one coaching, where peers with more than 20 years of experience can teach the ins and outs of the business, and we can educate everyone on labor laws, wage left, and workers’ rights. We recently graduated 22 students, and each graduating class we’ve had has at least two workers move on to a better job with more income stability and mobility in their work.
What are you focused on today?
Our priorities remain focused on how we can empower workers to become their own best advocates. We are in constant conversation with workers to understand their needs and the needs of the industry, and we’ll pivot to meet those needs. We’d also like to add a stationary car wash soon that also includes sustainable practices, green products, and water conservation efforts.
What do you want potential donors to know about your work?
My biggest struggle, and a struggle for all nonprofits supporting workers in low-wage industries, is that change takes time. We have to go slow and steady — we aren’t just teaching workers how to be better at their jobs, we’re also teaching critical business skills, like understanding a profit and loss statement or the fundamentals of running a business. So, to potential funders, I would say your investment will be well rooted: it’s a way to invest in human beings for change, and while that isn’t quantifiable, it is powerful.
What advice do you have for new innovators trying to help workers?
The most important lesson is to know that if you get a ‘No,’ that means, “It's just no right now.” Go back and reshape your idea; go back and see what your community really needs. What we originally pitched to The Workers Lab was an app, but what our community needed was what we've now developed.