U.S. sues Riverdale salon for firing whistleblower employee

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A salon popular among Riverdalians is in the crosshairs of the U.S. government, which alleges the small business illegally fired an employee after she informed co-workers of a potentially harmful practice there.

After working at Salon Zoë NY at 3545 Riverdale Ave. for years, Valerie Connolly lost her job as an office manager in June 2012. She claims the move came because she tried to warn co-workers of a possibly dangerous practice — hair-straightening treatments that use ingredients including formaldehyde.

“It was very traumatic,” Ms. Connolly said. “I was so well-connected in the community, and that was taken from me.”

In a case filed on Feb. 25 at federal court in Manhattan, the U.S. Department of Labor is demanding that Salon Zoë NY give Ms. Connolly her job back and compensate her for lost wages and for physical and psychological stress.

While salon owner Kristina Veljovic strongly denies both that Ms. Connolly was wrongfully fired and that any of her practices are harmful, the plaintiff claims her job took a grievous toll on her health. 

Mystery Ailment

Ms. Connolly said several months after the salon introduced new hair products for “keratin” and “Brazilian” straightening treatments in 2011, she began having difficulty breathing and smelling. When she was unable to determine the cause of her pain, she tried to ignore it.

However, one day while dropping her son off to school in January 2012, staff who noticed her thick wheeze and painful movements advised her to check into an emergency room.

That initiated a series of visits to doctors who prescribed treatments even while failing to diagnose the problem.

In June 2012, when her pain reached a peak, one of Ms. Connolly’s doctors raised the possibility that her illness was related to her work. Perhaps it was formaldehyde exposure, he speculated. He referred her to Mt. Sinai Hospital’s occupational medicine unit.

But the appointment was still a few weeks away, and Ms. Connolly felt she could no longer wait to take matters into her own hands. She began investigating the bottles at her salon to see whether they contained formaldehyde.

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