For many, getting a manicure is usually a question of finding the time. In New York, getting a manicure has become a political issue with politicians, including the governor, jumping on the bandwagon to nail salons and salon owners for egregious labor law violations and hazardous work conditions.
Last week, The New York Times published a two-part detailed investigative exposé on a topic that would not usually draw a lot of attention, much less make headlines. The blockbuster piece related the abusive treatment many nail salon workers endure for little pay. The workers, approximately 59 percent of whom are immigrants (an estimated 20 percent of them are illegal), are often forced to work unpaid apprenticeship periods, earn less than minimum wage once they are paid and spend their days inhaling potentially toxic chemicals that have caused many workers to suffer salon-related illnesses, such as horrible coughs.
According to The Times, no other large U.S. city rivals New York for its abundance of nail salons. While San Francisco and Los Angeles and San Francisco are the closest, they have half as many salons per person as NYC.
The story generated a lot of attention. It illustrated that poor, vulnerable women with little choices and little command of English are forced into a career catering to and pampering affluent women or at least those with more discretionary income. In addition, the story related the economics that nail salons are booming in New York City, more so than other cities, but prices for services have not changes much. The result is the workers are earning less to subsidize increased rents.
According to the article, manicurists typically pay $100 or $200 to start working in a nail salon. They then will often work for weeks (or longer) without pay. When they finally do earn hourly pay, it is often below minimum wage. Yes, there are tips, but some salons skim or withhold money from tips too.
The women know what they are often getting into. Asian-language newspaper ads list daily wages as low as $10 per day for salon jobs in Manhattan.
The New York state Labor Department in is responsible for monitoring wage violations. However, the department has largely ignored the more than 3,600 nail salons in the state. Records show they only conduct two or three dozen salon-related cases a year for all of New York state.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo created a new, multiagency emergency task force to assess and address the situation. His efforts will reportedly result in guidelines on use of chemicals, workers’ rights and more. They plan to require proper ventilation in salons, and use of gloves and masks by workers. The task force also plans to create materials that must be posted to educate workers on their rights (featuring messages about it being illegal to work without wages or to pay for the opportunity to secure a job). The information is expected to appear in languages like Korean and Mandarin that salon workers would understand better than English.
This follows an effort last year by the New York State Labor Department and other state agencies to study nail salons – after The Times requested information on enforcement efforts. That investigation that just involved looking into 29 salons uncovered well over 100 wage violations.
Commenting on his state’s history of dealing with unfair labor practices, Cuomo’s announcement about his task force made it clear that “we will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights.” He also his efforts tries to ensure any New York nail salons that do not fall in line will be shut down.
By Dyanne Weiss