New York State Forms Emergency Task Force to Protect Manicurists

State authorities spurred into action by New York Times expose uncovering health risks and wage theft in New York City’s nail salons

nail salon
Image Source/Corbis

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo ordered the state to take emergency action to protect manicurists in New York City on Sunday. A new multi-agency task force will conduct door-to-door audits of nail salons across the city in order to safeguard workers from toxic chemicals and stolen wages exposed by a recent investigation by reporter Sarah Maslin Nir for the New York Times. 

“New York State has a long history of confronting wage theft and unfair labor practices head on and today, with the formation of this new Enforcement Task Force, we are aggressively following in that tradition,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights.”

The salon crackdown comes on the heels of a set of articles written by Nir that called attention to the hazardous working conditions and unfair labor practices workers experience in nail salons throughout New York City in the two-part series, “Unvarnished." The new task force was scrambled in the aftermath of the paper’s investigation and is taking immediate action to protect vulnerable workers, writes Nir:

Under new rules, manicurists must wear gloves to reduce the risks of contracting skin conditions, such as fungal infections and warts, and developing burns from handling chemicals.

The plan currently will also require masks, though occupational health experts say the hospital-style masks that manicurists sometimes wear give only the appearance of safety. Such masks do almost nothing to prevent exposure to chemicals, such as dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde, that are used in nail products and have been linked to leukemia and fetal defects. And salons will be required to be ventilated, to reduce the chemical fumes.

A growing body of research shows that long-term exposure to the chemicals that make nail polish dry quickly and chip less often is linked to serious health problems such as respiratory conditions, cancer and miscarriages. While there have been few studies devoted to how nail salon workers are affected by the chemicals, some health officials are concerned. As one of the agencies in the task force, the State Health Department will conduct a study to determine the safest practices for salon workers. Salons will also be required to publicly display signs in six languages informing their staff of their rights, including that it is illegal to pay a fee for a job or to work without wages. Both are common practices in the nail salon industry, writes Nir.

Many salon workers are undocumented and often don’t speak much English, making them vulnerable to exploitation. As a result, the government agencies in the task force will not ask workers about their immigration status during their investigations, the governor’s office told Nir. Salon owners will be required to be bonded to make sure their workers are paid fully and on time and will lose their license to operate if they do not take immediate action to meet state law. State agencies will also conduct an education campaign in community groups across the city to inform workers of their right to a fair wage regardless of immigration status.

“Staff members from several agencies reacted strongly, and began to call one another upon reading the findings,” writes Nir.

While the emergency measures were pulled together quickly, the governor’s office told Nir this is just the first step and that will continue to work to protect salon workers from dangerous and exploitative working conditions.

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