Polishing a bill to protect nail workers

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Although maintaining well manicured nails dates back thousands of years, the modern nail salon didn’t come into being until about the 19th century.

Today, nearly 400,000 people across the country identify themselves as nail technicians. Yet, it wasn’t until quite recently many of these technicians joined forces in a push for higher wages and fair treatment. And now they might be getting a little bit of help from new legislation making its way through lawmakers in Albany.

That’s exactly the kind of news Araceli Torres wants to hear. A nail technician who has spent the last five years at a salon on Broadway in Kingsbridge, Torres says the conditions she works under are not up to par.

While workers are paid just over the minimum, at $12 an hour, they usually work 10-hour days, four days a week, to avoid overtime, Torres said through a translator.

“In regards to the actual working conditions, for example, we’re not given the proper protective equipment to work,” she said. “We’re not given the right gloves, and the gloves (the salon owner) does provide us are either too big or too small. They don’t fit us right.”

Ill-fitting gloves can break, or at the very least, allow water to seep onto a technician’s hand, Torres said, often directly exposing workers to nail fungus or other problems their clients may have.

Salon owners also are supposed to supply masks and goggles to protect workers’ eyes and lungs, Torres said, but she often works without them.

Torres has discovered some light at the end of the tunnel through the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, a rather new organization formed just a few years ago after a 2016 New York Times piece detailed wage theft and poor working conditions throughout the city. Boasting more than 700 technicians — many of whom are immigrants — the group is pushing a newly introduced state bill, the Nail Salon Accountability Act.

Sponsored by Staten Island Democrat Diane Savino in the senate and Queens Democrat Catalina Cruz in the Assembly, the accountability act is intended to serve as an amendment of sorts to a bill passed in 2015 in the wake of the Times’ investigative report. It’s intended to “raise standards and improve working conditions” in the nail salon industry, according to a memo accompanying the Assembly version of the bill.

If signed into law, the act would require nail salon owners and operators to be trained and provide training and educational materials to its work force on issues such as wage and hour laws, as well as health and safety information, according to the Assembly memo. It’s also looking to give workers themselves a voice in the renewal of business licenses, giving New York’s Secretary of State the power to deny a license or renewal if minimum requirements set in the bill are not met.

There are 40,000 nail salon workers in the state, according to the Assembly memo, with many still seeing minimum wage as low as $12, at least until the end of the year.

So far in the upper chamber, only state Sen. Gustavo Rivera has signed on. However, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi told The Riverdale Press she’s signing on as well after members of the nail salon association visited her Albany office.

“These workers across the board are being failed by a lack of oversight and accountability,” Biaggi said. “Even though laws are passed to make laws stronger and protect them, there’s still a lack of an enforcement mechanism.”

It’s not enough just to give workers rights, the senator added, but also to step up to enforce those laws and give them teeth.

Torres agreed existing laws don’t do enough to protect workers like her. She has spent 11 years now as a nail technician, and found little changed after the first bill intended to protect people in her industry passed in 2015.

“No matter where I have worked, owners just don’t follow the law,” Torres said. “There could be thousands of laws, and the owners just don’t comply with them. There’s nothing forcing them to comply. All they care about is the money we make them.”

One woman Biaggi met with spoke about planning to work more hours to provide for her family because she knew she wouldn’t make enough money during an eight-hour shift.

Salon workers are one group of employees who are exempt from New York’s new minimum wage laws because they make tips. Where most minimum wage employees in the city make at least $15 an hour, tipped workers make just $10 an hour, with tips expected to make up the difference.

They usually don’t, Torres said. Others in her industry have told her salon owners will sometimes ask technicians to artificially inflate earnings so they won’t have to pay the difference out of their own pocket.

A bill calling for a minimum wage for tipped workers will be introduced this year, Biaggi said, in an effort to get rid of the struggle those who depend on the generosity of customers endure.

The nail salon workers association gives Torres power, she said. Even though it’s not a union, being part of such a group has allowed Torres to speak up without fear, even to her manager, when she feels either she or her coworkers are being treated poorly, or when any of her fellow technicians need to learn what their rights are in the city.

“There’s power in a union,” Torres said. “This association has already provided us benefits, and I see it continuing to go further.”

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