Wage Theft: Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in plain sight

As we all know, sometimes the best place to hide something is out in the open. And that applies to nail salons in New York City where mani-pedi’s were ridiculously cheap, but no one asked why…except Sarah Maslin Nir.

Nir found extensive wage theft hiding right under the nose of consumers, worker advocates, federal and state enforcement agencies and a state attorney general with a reputation for sniffing out and rigorously prosecuting violators.

Nir went to a 24-hour spa in NYC for a pedicure. It was about 10 a.m. and she asked the manicurist, “Who works the night shift?” Nir learned that the manicurist worked 24 hours a day, six days a week, that she slept in a barracks upstairs, and that when people came in at night they shook her awake to do a treatment. One night a week she could go home to her apartment in Flushing.

When Nir, a reporter for The New York Times, pitched the idea of an expose to her editor, she was told to take a month to see if the manicurist’s story was an isolated case or part of a broader practice.

In May 2015, after 13 months of investigative research, Nir broke a 2-part series on working conditions in New York City nail salons that found “manicurists are routinely underpaid and exploited, and endure ethnic bias and other abuse.” In a related article, Nir said:

“In interviews with more than 125 manicurists across the New York region, who have worked, all told, in over 300 nail shops, only three spoke of salons that appeared to obey the letter of the law when it comes to compensation — doing things like paying minimum wage, keeping accurate hourly records and paying overtime.”

~Sarah Maslin Nir

On May 11, within days of Nir’s stories, Gov. Cuomo created a task force to investigate salons, institute new rules to protect manicurists from dangerous chemicals in nail products, and to begin an education program in six languages to inform workers of their right to be fully compensated, regardless of their immigration status.

The state task force–comprised of the departments of state, labor, health, taxation, and finance and the workers’ compensation board–worked with community-based organizations to identify violators and to encourage workers to come forward.

As of July 31, the task force had issued 1,800 citations after investigating 755 nail salons, state officials told C4AD.

On July 16, Cuomo signed legislation that requires salons to be bonded, so workers can be paid if salon owners are found to have underpaid workers and try to avoid recovery by hiding their assets.

Also on July 16, Cuomo created a second multi-agency task force to root out wage theft and worker exploitation in industries with high rates of employer non-compliance and where workers are least likely to come forward for fear of retaliation. Target industries include farming, childcare, cleaning, home health care, laundry, restaurants, retail, construction, landscaping, car washes, supermarkets, janitorial services, and truck and waste disposal drivers.

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com

If you happen upon a curious situation where the fox is hiding with the hounds and it smells like it might be a case of wage theft, please let us know. Email one of our reporters or send a note via our Contact Us form.