Last year’s bombshell New York Times investigation on labor conditions in nail salons won both praise and criticism, the latter mostly from salon owners, who claimed the story greatly exaggerated how poorly paid many workers are. The evidence continues to show the Times series did indeed find serious flaws in the industry, including widespread underpayment of workers.

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On Monday, the Times reported that according to state records, labor investigators cited more than 40 percent of salons they inspected for underpayment. Salon owners were directed to pay out a total of $1.1 million in back wages and “several hundred thousand dollars” in damages to salon employees. Some of the underpayment was severe, the paper found:

Some of the violations were egregious: One worker at a Manhattan salon was paid $30 a day for 10-hour shifts; another manicurist in Queens was paid only $200 for a 50-hour workweek; manicurists at seven salons were forced to work for no pay or had to pay salon owners a fee, ostensibly to learn the trade; several owners admitted to submitting fake payroll records in an effort to fool investigators.

At the same time, the story also found that some of the salon owners cited were people who were unfamiliar with state and city labor laws, many recent immigrants themselves:

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Many owners, even some of those making efforts to pay decent wages, simply failed to grasp the technical details of state labor laws. Many salon owners, for example, seemed unaware that they must pay one full hour of bonus wages when an employee’s shift spans more than 10 hours.

Nail workers routinely work days that stretch longer than eight hours and are paid in flat daily or weekly wages, a combination that does not square with state labor laws on overtime pay and essentially guarantees a violation, even when employees are paid a rate that works out to more than the state minimum wage.

Other salon owners have said they have undocumented employees who prefer to be paid in cash, which is undoubtedly also true.

But investigators also found evidence of other illegal practices cited in the NYT series, like charging employees for supplies—gloves, nail polish—or forcing them to pay their bosses for work they performed during an “apprenticeship” period. And one woman working at New Broadway Nails was fired in retaliation for talking to state investigators, which is also very, very illegal. (New Broadway was fined $10,000 for the retaliation, according to the NYT and $5,000 for other violation, in addition to being ordered to pay $84,000 in back wages and $66,000 in damages. The salon is appealing the decision.)

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Both the New York Review of Books and the libertarian magazine Reason published stories claiming the Times series was exaggerated or inaccurate; neither has mentioned the new investigation.


Contact the author at anna.merlan@jezebel.com.

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