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New York Moves to Protect Nail Salon Workers

May 29, 2015
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3min read

Days after the New York Times released a report on nail salons in the state that detailed widespread wage violations and potential health hazards caused by exposure to chemicals in salon products, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the formation of a multiagency emergency task force to examine the issue.

Of the task force, the Governor said in a statement, “We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights.”

One week after the formation of the task force, Governor Cuomo announced the introduction of new legislation and a plan for addressing the working conditions of nail salon employees.  While the Governor’s response is laudable for its speed, some of the measures appear to either duplicate existing laws or are poorly tailored to nail salon employees.

For example, among the new changes is a regulation requiring nail salons to post a Nail Workers’ Bill of Rights in 6 various languages informing employees of their right to wages and safe working conditions.  It will also contain a hotline number for employees to ask question and submit complaints.

Yet, existing law in New York already requires the posting of information about minimum wage, tip appropriation, unlawful deductions from wages, and how to report unsafe working conditions. Several of these postings must be in English and Spanish.

New York law also requires employers to provide employees – in the employee’s primary language – with a wage statement each pay period that details the hours worked, rate of pay, and deductions taken from wages. Employers who fail to comply face fines of $100 per employee each pay period. Like the signage already required by law, the Nail Worker Bill of Rights will only be effective if it is enforced.

Prior to the release of the New York Times investigation, the New York State Department of Labor had done a large-scale investigation of nail salons only once in which it inspected 29 of the approximately 4,000 nail salons in the state and found 116 wage violations. Since 2008, the department has investigated about 2-3 dozen stores across the state annually, most initiated by employee complaints.

Of the nearly 40 investigations in 2014, nearly 33% were for the same chain of nail salons. Only 18 of the Department of Labor’s 115 investigators speak Spanish; 8 speak Chinese and 2 speak Korean.

The proposed legislation would allow unlicensed workers to register as trainees with the state while studying for the licensing exam. Designed as an alternative to costly formal education and to avoid employers from forcing employees to pay to work, it ignores the reality that many of the employees in nail salons are immigrants without authorization to work in this country.  It is therefore unlikely that this change will result in more employees obtaining their licenses.

The most promising of the new measures as they relate to wages appears to be the requirement that salons be bonded.  For employees who are able to overcome the hurdles of knowing their rights, seeking out and securing counsel, and eventually winning a lawsuit against their employers, the real challenge often comes to executing the judgement. Employers sell the business, hide assets, and disappear, leaving employees with nothing more than a debt owed to them.  If adopted and enforced, this portion of the legislation could result in more employees collecting wages owed to them.

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