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Underpayment Is Still Rampant in New York State's Nail Salons

Driely S.

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Nearly ten months after the New York Times blew the cap — with built-in brush — off of the abuses routinely taking place in New York state's nail salons, has anything changed? The paper revisited the subject by reviewing several reports from the hundreds of state inspections that took place between May and December, many of which looked at salons within the five boroughs, and followed up by interviewing both employees and owners.

The verdict? Nail technicians are still routinely underpaid, and plenty of owners are still finding ways to flout the law.

In broad terms, the Labor Department handed out citations to more than 40% of the salons visited for underpayment, translating to $1.1 million in back wages owed to employees, and instances of working for free or paying to train on the job were still common. The most frequent violation that the department saw — about 85% of salons — was inadequate payment records, which highlights the difficulty of record-keeping in an industry that employs illegal immigrants. Without records, investigators had to rely on employees' self-reported wages, which they feared could have been inflated when reported in front of their bosses.

"We have a vulnerable worker population slowly coming to understand its rights, but some are still afraid and unsure of who to trust," Frank Sobrino, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo's office, told the Times. "As a result, they do not come forward to report abuse." In at least one case, a salon owner fired an employee who spoke to an investigator without permission.

When it comes to record-keeping, a number of owners were unaware that they improperly tracking hours when it came to overtime, since many are still using flat day rates. "In two dozen cases, for instance, owners paid employees an equivalent of at least the state minimum wage and overtime for the hours they worked, but because they did not correctly account for the overtime hours they were still cited for underpayment," Kim Barker and Russ Buettner wrote in their article.

"We are not cracking down on innocent bookkeeping errors," Sobrino clarified later on in the piece. "We are fighting to recover unpaid wages and improve working conditions for exploited nail salon workers." Several dozen more salons with inaccurate records were not meeting the minimum wage of $8.75 an hour.

Salon owners were quick to criticize the paper for unfairly putting a bad name on their business. "You generalize every nail salon as a place where people are taken advantage of, which is not true," Maurice Paredes, who co-owned the now-closed Golden Nails in Morningside Heights. Investigators found that Golden Nails had underpaid six employees by more than $100 over three years.

"It's tough for owners, as well as workers," added, Min Suk Yi, who operates a salon on Long Island. "Most owners like me work seven days a week for decades. I never even dreamed of taking a vacation." Labor investigator Cecilia J. Maloney said that Yi twice lied to her about employees, some of whom were running out the back door when she first arrived.

In the case of Juana Idrovo at Bushwick's Happy Nails, the owner blocked the inspector from interviewing her, saying she "just comes to clean from time to time," Idrovo recounted. In reality, Idrovo's been performing manicures and pedicures here for almost seven years at a rate of $60 a day for shifts that can extend past ten hours — an upgrade from her initial $50 salary. "I was nervous because the owner kept coming over warning me not to say anything," she told the paper.

At the time of the inspection, the state ordered that Idrovo be paid $6,700 in back wages and $1,677 in damages, but it's unclear whether she's received that money. The owner of the now-closed salon couldn't be reached for comment.

What may be the most important thing to point out about all of this is that the vast number of salons cited for violations, whether accidental or egregious, are still up and running: The completion of 230 investigations last year only led to a dozen salon closures statewide.