Nail Salon Worker Victims of Wage Theft

Yarelyn Mena and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

Recently, The New York Times interviewed over 150 nail salon workers and owners, who revealed a culture of wage theft. According to the interviews, the overwhelming majority of workers were paid below minimum wage, if at all, and workers’ tips were docked as punishment for trivial mistakes. Only 25 percent of the workers interviewed reported earning the New York minimum hourly wage. Moreover, all but three workers reported their wages were illegally withheld. Employers were rarely held accountable for these violations.

Nail salons are particularly common in New York City; their number has tripled in the last 15 years. Nora Cacho, a worker at the nail salon chain Envy Nails in East Harlem, reported that after a 66-hour workweek, she earned approximately $200, including tips, which is effectively a $3 per hour wage. Many patrons are unaware of these appalling violations of the law.

Nail salon workers are predominately undocumented immigrants from Korea, China and Latin America. Typically, their employers tell them that they should be grateful for having nail salon jobs because of their immigration status. Workers often lack any knowledge of wage and hour laws and the means to understand those laws because of limited understanding of the English language.

In response, the New York State Department of Labor (“DOL”), in conjunction with several other agencies, conducted its first investigation of the labor practices of nail salons in the United States. The DOL investigated 29 salons and found 116 wage violations, including minimum wage and overtime violations.

Despite tremendous obstacles, emboldened workers successfully have brought lawsuits against their employers. For example, in December 2009, with the help of the Legal Aid Society, workers from three Babi Nails salons in Long Island filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleging that they earned less than the minimum wage and received no overtime pay. After this lawsuit, nail salon workers from Babi Nails and other local salons weekly picketed the salons. On March 22, 2012, a jury awarded the workers $160,000 in unpaid wages and $80,000 in overtime pay.

On May 10, 2015, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered a multiagency task force to tackle wage theft and health hazard issues across all nail salons in the state. The task force will conduct investigations in each salon, implement new rules to protect workers from common chemicals used in nail salons, and create a six-language educational campaign to inform workers of their rights in the workplace. Unlicensed, noncompliant employers will be ordered to shut down. Governor Cuomo stated, “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. We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights.”

Nail salon workers deserve the same protections that all workers in the labor force can rely on in the United States. If you believe your employer has denied you the minimum wage, failed to pay overtime, or illegally withheld your wages, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.