BY ALINA SURIEL AND ANGELA MATUA
Owners of New York City nail salons gathered Monday in Flushing to publicly speak for the first time since recent investigations shed light on rampant abusive labor practices in the industry.
Sang-Ho Lee, president of the Korean Nail Association, was joined by Congresswoman Grace Meng and Assemblyman Ron Kim to announce the creation of the “Healthy Nail Salon Network” to institute immediate fixes and long-term solutions to alleged wage theft and unsafe working conditions.
Kim, himself the child of immigrant parents who once operated Manhattan nail salons, said that the business leaders in the community have stepped up to the challenge of creating a safe workplace.
“I stand here with the owners of these mom-and-pop, community-based stores today to use this opportunity to help this industry become better,” Kim said. “For every turn, confrontation, or setback, there are opportunities to learn and become better at what we do.”
Lee outlined many of the problems in the nail salon industry and proposed actions to combat these issues, such as raising prices for manicures and creating a code of conduct for salons, as well as a state-certified “good business” label to show which salons are in compliance with regulations.
“We have a number of challenges ahead of us but thousands of immigrant workers depend on us getting this right,” said Lee, who added that the association will cooperate with state labor agencies in their ongoing investigations.
The thousands of undocumented women in the nail salon industry are particularly vulnerable, often lacking English language skills and the means to find employment. Business owners who intentionally exploit these employees exacerbate the issue by violating health codes and underpaying beauty technicians to cut costs and drive prices down.
Meng said that while cooperation from nail salon employers is crucial in creating change, more should also be done by federal and state immigration and labor agencies to increase awareness of workers’ rights.
“It’s important, as with any industry, not to just paint the entire industry with such a broad stroke, so that the hard-working, law-abiding owners are vilified,” said Meng.
As part of his continued effort to deal with the issue at a state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today that in addition to his multi-agency task force to recover stolen wages and shut down the industry’s worst offenders, a new package of legislation and regulations will be implemented to protect workers. The legislation would allow the Department of State to shut down any nail salon that is unlicensed and impose financial penalties higher than currently permitted.
Unlicensed nail practitioners will be allowed to register with the state as trainees and skip high-cost education programs, which will allow them to work while studying for their licensing exam. These license exams will now be offered in three extra languages including Nepali, Tibetan and Vietnamese, in addition to English, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Russian and Chinese.
In addition to reviewing the chemical agents used in nail products and requiring employers to provide workers with protective masks, nitrile gloves and eye protection, all nail salons must secure a bond or insurance policy to cover business liabilities and ensure that employers can pay back wages to workers if they are ordered to do so.
A new task force hotline number has been established to answer any questions about nail salons, proper wages and safe working conditions at 888-469-7365.