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New York’s emergency crackdown on abuses at nail salons, explained

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Late last week, the New York Times published a massive two-part investigation into working conditions in New York City–area nail salons on its website. The first part documented widespread wage theft, underpayment, and illegal fees that owners were charging salon workers in the area. The second part raised concerns about the health effects of many common salon chemicals, tying them to respiratory and skin problems, as well as birth defects and miscarriages.

The investigation made a big splash (partly because of the effort the Times put into promoting it, which one editor described as "more like a book launch" than something a newspaper would typically do). It raised serious questions about whether it was ethical for anyone to give money to such a dangerous industry, as well as what government could do to better protect salon workers. And it quickly catalyzed action from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who announced on Sunday a plan to further investigate the salons and their working conditions.

What did the Times discover that was so appalling?

First of all, the Times discovered that many, maybe even most, manicurists in the New York City area were being paid illegally low wages, or were having their wages withheld. The Times talked to more than 100 salon workers — and reported that all but three of them had had wages withheld in ways that were illegal in New York, such as not getting overtime.

Many of the individual workers were kept in even worse conditions. Workers at one salon were living in the basement of the salon owner's house — a sign that they could be the victims of labor trafficking — while the salon owner drove a Mercedes. Many owners simply treated their employees as worthless, or nearly worthless:

Qing Lin, 47, a manicurist who has worked on the Upper East Side for the last 10 years, still gets emotional when recounting the time a splash of nail polish remover marred a customer’s patent Prada sandals. When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay. Ms. Lin was asked not to return.

"I am worth less than a shoe," she said.

In the second part of the investigation, the Times focused on some of the health problems that longtime nail salon employees had developed — problems that were linked to some of the most common chemicals in nail salons. The Times identified three: dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. Many manicurists had suffered miscarriages, or given birth to children with developmental defects; plenty of others suffered constant running noses, sore throats, or "coffee-colored" stains on their cheeks.

When Ki Ok Chung, a manicurist who worked in salons for almost two decades, had her fingerprints taken in the early 2000s for her United States citizenship, she made an upsetting discovery: Her prints were almost nonexistent. They had to be taken seven times. She says constant work with files, solvents and emollients is responsible.

"I realized my fingerprints had been disappearing," she said.

Today, she cannot touch hot or cold dishes without searing pain.

What is New York doing in response to the Times investigation?

On Sunday morning, Governor Cuomo announced that the state government was putting together an emergency "multiagency task force" to address nail salon conditions. The task force will issue new regulations for health conditions in salons — including requiring all workers to wear gloves and masks, and requiring all salons to be ventilated.

It will also investigate individual salons to see whether they meet safety regulations and whether they're legally paying their workers. Signs will be put up in salons telling workers about their rights, and community organizations will be available to train workers. Salons that haven't paid their workers enough will be ordered to give them back pay. (Many businesses accused of wage theft use an accounting trick to claim they don't have the money to pay back workers; the plan includes a backstop that's supposed to keep them from pulling that trick.) Salons that refuse, or that aren't licensed businesses to begin with, will get shut down.

The Cuomo administration has said it is taking these measures because of the Times investigation. According to a Times report on Monday, after the first story ran, New York government employees from various agencies were shocked and outraged by what they read, and started calling each other to brainstorm ideas for how to respond.

Why hadn't the government already been doing this?

It's important to remember that there were two different sets of issues raised by the Times investigation. The first part, about paying workers, showed that many salons around New York City were doing things that were already illegal under state law. The second part, about chemicals, focused on things that were legal but that the Times, doctors, and advocates said were threatening workers' health.

So in the case of the chemical regulations, the answer is that the existing government evidence hadn't found the chemicals in question to be dangerous enough to ban. (It's worth noting that the new regulations don't actually ban any chemicals yet, though the task force could decide to do that later.)

manicure

(Brian Brainerd/Denver Post)

Worker pay violations, on the other hand, were something the state Department of Labor was supposed to investigate and prevent. It had done some wage enforcement against nail salons — the Times pointed out that the first large-scale Department of Labor raid on salons happened last year — but apparently not enough.

One Department of Labor investigator explained that they had more trouble getting manicurists to speak out about their pay problems than they'd ever seen before from workers: "They're running scared." And if workers won't cooperate, it's hard for investigators to go after their bosses.

Why won't workers speak out?

The short answer is that the overwhelming majority of them are immigrants with limited English skills, and many are unauthorized. As I wrote last week, unauthorized immigrants are extremely vulnerable: if a worker tries to seek better treatment, her boss can just threaten to report her to immigration authorities. But legal immigrants are often just as unaware of their labor rights, and just as isolated by language barriers. Furthermore, many abusive employers use immigrants' legal status against them — taking their workers' papers from them, or threatening to fire workers (which, in many cases, would deprive them of their legal status) if they complain.

When an immigrant comes to the US, especially when she doesn't speak English, the people she knows are the only network she has, and her fellow countrypeople are the only community. Exploitative employers pervert that relationship. They take some of the most vulnerable people and isolate them completely from the rest of society.

Will the emergency measures work?

As with any government regulation, the first question is how thoroughly these plans are going to be implemented and enforced. The promise to shut down unlicensed salons — which, legally speaking, shouldn't be open to begin with — is a reminder that part of the Cuomo administration's plan is simply to do a better job of enforcing the laws it already has.

Some of the new regulations for dealing with chemicals appear to be better thought through than others. Health experts endorse requiring manicurists to wear gloves, but many of them say that masks "give only the appearance of safety" — they don't actually reduce exposure to these particular chemicals. Requiring salons to be ventilated will definitely reduce exposure for workers, but it might require changes that some salons aren't physically (or financially) able to make.

The biggest question is still how the government can protect workers if workers are afraid to come forward. Labor exploitation experts say that workers empowering themselves is the most promising way to stop exploitation, and providing signs and training to educate workers seems like a good way to promote that empowerment. (Indeed, worker training by community groups has already led to one lawsuit against a salon owner in California after workers discovered they were underpaid.) But ultimately, whether workers are willing to come forward is going to depend on how safe they feel going to any representative of the government. And that's as much a problem of US immigration policy as anything.

Healthy Nail Salons

(Essdras M Suarez/Boston Globe/Getty)

Is this just a New York problem? How widespread is it?

The chemicals the Times investigation focused on — dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde — are both legal and incredibly common in salons across the country. Some states have regulations or laws requiring some form of ventilation, but they're often overlooked. While the Times's own investigation focused on New York nail salon workers, it also discussed a California effort — the California Healthy Nail Salons Collaborative — to improve safety conditions in salons there; it was prompted by widespread serious health problems among Bay Area manicurists. So while there's not a lot of national research focusing on the threats to salon workers from these chemicals, it's possible that they're fairly common.

It's harder to tell whether manicurists in the rest of the country are as underpaid as they are in New York. The New York salon industry is a bit unusual in that it's run and dominated by Korean immigrants — in many other parts of the country, salons are run and staffed largely by Vietnamese immigrants. And again, because immigrants are so often loath to speak out about mistreatment, it's just hard to know where mistreatment is happening.

By the same token, it's incredibly unlikely that nail salons are the only places in New York where immigrant workers are being illegally underpaid. But because that's the industry the Times wrote about last week, that's the industry New York is cracking down on this week.

I don't live in New York. What can I do?

It's possible that other states will take the Times's investigation as an opportunity to examine their own salon regulations, and it will probably inspire a new push to get the federal government to ban dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde.

At the local level, the California Healthy Nail Salons Collaborative is encouraging people to start Healthy Nail Salons campaigns in other places, working with local government to reward businesses that are keeping their workers safe.

As an individual consumer, you should check out our guide to getting an ethical manicure.

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