The governor’s call to crack down on wage theft and dangerous conditions at nail salons is a bold step to improve the work environment for the thousands of low wage New Yorkers, according to workers’ rights advocates.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s task force, which was created in response to a New York Times report that shed light on the plight of underpaid, overworked nail salon workers and health risks they face, promises to enforce safety regulations and regain paid wages for the employees.
Elected officials and leaders of non-profits alike praised the governor’s swift action and for listening to the calls to end wage discrimination.
“I think it shows the power of working people in the streets and the press telling the real stories of what’s going on,” said Deborah Axt, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York.
The two-part New York Times piece, which went online last week, found that thousands of immigrant nail salon workers were paid as low as $1.50 an hour for 60-hour work weeks and were vulnerable to dangerous chemicals and substances on the job.
Cuomo’s multiagency task force will make several immediate actions including mandating that nail salon workers wear protective equipment, mandatory postings that describe a worker’s bill of rights, new regulations that would “secure either a bond or expanded insurance policy to cover claims for unpaid wages as part of its licensure.” Julie Irwin, a professor at the University of Texas, said government action goes a long way since it provides consumers with the tools and information so they can make educated decisions.
“We can do the best we can,” she said. “But if we don’t have the information, we can’t make the decisions.”
Axt said elected officials pushed for reform like this for years but stalls in Albany have kept their hands tied from making any progress. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who proposed a letter grading system for salons last summer, agreed.
“This is an important public health issue, one that benefits not only customers but also protects the personal safety and workers’ rights of those in the industry,” he said in a statement.
Charlene Obernauer, the executive director of New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said Cuomo’s move does set a precedent for leaders across the nation to act for other low paid workers like fast food employees, who took to the streets last month and demanded fair pay.
She urged other victims of wage theft to make their voices heard.
“When you focus on a specific industry, the question is of course what other industries can get the same focus,” Obernauer said.
“We’re going to keep our eyes and ears on the ground and make sure these initiatives make a difference.”
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