New York State’s announcement that 143 nail salons, most in New York City, have been ordered to pay $2 million in unpaid wages and damages to their employees earlier this week has arguably created a new precedent for how labor laws will be enforced in the state, one that can be used to target the restaurant, car wash and landscaping industries, where similar patterns of worker abuse can be found, according to the office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The announcement was the result of close to a year’s worth of work by what Cuomo’s office referred to as a “multi-agency Enforcement Task Force” focused on preventing unlawful practices and unsafe working conditions in nail salons.
"Industries like nail salons that overwhelmingly employ immigrant workers are particularly susceptible to abuse," Kara Miller, an attorney at Virginia & Ambinder, LLP, said in Cuomo's office's press release. "Brave workers who risk their livelihood to speak out against these practices often win in the eyes of the law, only to find recovery impossible because the nail salon has closed shop."
The task force was put together following the publication of an investigative report on underpaid nail salon employees, many of them undocumented immigrants, in The New York Times last May.
New York City was home to an estimated 374,000 undocumented workers, according to data from 2000- 2006 compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center -- which calls itself a "nonpartisan research organization that seeks to improve understanding of the U.S. Hispanic population." According to Pew, the top jobs for this group were as cooks, janitors, construction workers and housekeepers; dishwashers were the only occupation in the city, according to Pew, to be staffed with a majority of undocumented workers, accounting for more than half of employees at 54 percent.
“Too often what you see here is that undocumented workers in New York City today are given an ultimatum. Either you do what you’re told the way you’re told or you lose your job,” a labor activist who wished to remain anonymous told ABC News.
New York City’s bustling restaurant industry, with establishments numbering in at least the tens of thousands, could potentially be a target for a task force similar to the one that's tackling nail salons, according to Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for Cuomo’s office. He also pointed to the car wash and landscaping industries as other possible targets.
“What you often have in these situations are immigrant workers with language barriers and that makes them easy targets for employee abuse,” Sobrino told ABC News, adding that employees in these sectors are frequently unaware of their rights. “To some degree, they may also consider themselves lucky to have work which makes them afraid to speak up.”
Sobrino added that the governor’s office considers its approach of focusing in on specific industries to be unique, and said the office was unaware of other states that have taken on such a targeted approach to worker exploitation.
Sobrino said that other, similar operations were likely underway in New York, but the state could not elaborate on the specific details of those investigations to the press.